Nicolas Bey, 11, hugs his father, Sayyid, on the ground where their home once stood in Sycan Forest Estates, north of Bly, Oregon, on July 27, 2021. "As long as me and him are up here, even with this fire and everything burnt, I can still be happy with hi

What It’s Like Surviving a Wildfire When You Live Off the Grid

The people of Sycan Forest Estates in the mountains of Oregon grow their own food, handwash their clothes, and rely on each other for help.
August 3, 2021, 4:45pm

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KLAMATH FALLS, Oregon — Sayyid Bey has his right arm over the slumped shoulders of his son Nicolas, 11, as they use the tips of their shoes to kick through the burned and blackened debris that was once their three-room home in Sycan Forest Estates in the mountains north of Bly, Oregon.

In the ash are pieces of broken kitchen pottery, the vacant remains of picture frames, and a slightly ajar freezer filled with spoiled deer meat. Nicolas bends down and picks up his sister’s singed baby doll and shows his father before placing it gently back on the ground.

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“I lost toys I’ve had ever since I was a baby and clothes that I really liked to wear,” Nicolas said. “I thought maybe the fire was going to miss us. But the day we got here I saw that everything was burned.”

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Sayyid Bey and his son Nicolas, 11, comb through the remains of their home on July 24, 2021, two weeks after it burned in the Bootleg Fire. Their home was one of many lost in Sycan Forest Estates, located in the mountains north of Bly, Oregon. (Maranie R. Staab/VICE News)

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A singed and sooty doll lies among the remains of Sayyid Bey’s home in Sycan Forest Estates, north of Bly, Oregon, on July 27, 2021. (Maranie R. Staab/VICE News)

It’s been several weeks since the United States’ largest wildfire, the Bootleg Fire, tore through the area, once vast and green, and destroyed the homes of over 110 families. If not invited, you might never know the homes existed—and that’s precisely how the residents prefer it. They’re part of a loose community deep in the mountains that has built a simple and sustainable life away from crowds and most modern conveniences. They hunt for and grow their food, wash their clothing by hand, and rely on each other for help. They start preparations for winter early—canning, fortifying their homes, and cutting at least four, preferably six, cords of wood to stay warm.

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Sayyid Bey shares photographs he made of the Bootleg Fire as it approached and then consumed Sycan Forest Estates, north of Bly, Oregon, the area he and his family call home. (Maranie R. Staab/VICE News)

Sayyid, 45, and his son are among the youngest people living in Sycan Forest Estates. Others are retired, some are disabled, and most are on a fixed income. All have lost something in the Bootleg Fire.

Unlike the 2020 Almeda Fire in Oregon or the 2018 Camp Fire in California—both of which destroyed densely populated areas—the Bootleg wildfire has burned and continues to burn some of the most remote parts of the country. Although there have been no fatalities, the flames devastated a population that’s largely off the grid and without safety nets. 

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No one has insurance to cover the loss of their burned homes, trailers, or outbuildings. Most insurance companies simply refuse to cover those who live in high-risk areas, or those prone to wildfires, like Sycan Forest Estates.

“It’s not that we don’t want insurance or are choosing the risk; they either tell us ‘no’ or the cost to insure is more than most of us make in a year,” said Jim Linton, who moved to the mountain with his partner, Pam, to retire. They lost four vehicles and the majority of their outbuildings in the fire. 

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The road leading to Sycan Forest Estates, northern of Bly, Oregon, seen on July 24, 2021, is neither paved nor maintained, making it often impassable in the winter. (Maranie R. Staab/VICE News)

Cellphone service is also nonexistent in most of Sycan Forest Estates and intermittent at best in other parts. There’s no electricity or running water, and a trip to the grocery store is an afternoon commitment—the nearest town is a solid hour’s drive away. The dusty and bumpy road is almost impassable without four-wheel drive, and it’s still not possible to go more than 10 or 15 mph in some places.

“People have lost their homes, their cars, their shops, everything they’ve collected and worked for their entire lives. This was their dream. This was their retirement,” said Valeries O’Dai, director of Relief Angels, a boots-on-the ground disaster relief organization helping victims of the fire in Sycan Forest Estates. “A lot of these people had to educate themselves on how to survive off-grid because it is not something taught in schools, it’s not something you learn in general society.”

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Nicolas Bey, 11, sorts through a large container of snacks amid boxes of donated food at the Bly Fire Department in Bly, Oregon, on July 26, 2021. The fire department site became a donation center following the start of the Bootleg Fire. (Maranie R. Staab/VICE News)

In 2016, Sayyid left a career in the fashion industry that had him living a fast-paced existence between Los Angeles and New York City. Two years later, he purchased a plot of land in Sycan Forest Estates. 

“I was tired of being in a city of millions and still feeling alone. And there were too many distractions. How can you work on yourself when there are so many distractions? When you’re worried about everyone else? Food, family, clothing, shelter: I don’t need more than that.”

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Like most on the mountain, Sayyid built his home himself and learned the skills and routines necessary to survive. Now, several years later, a deep understanding of the weather and the land enables him to survive year-round. He grows his own vegetables, fetches water from a number of fresh spring wells, and gathers eggs from chickens. Any electricity he and his son need comes from solar panels affixed to an outbuilding near their home. All of that was lost in the fire.

“I received a lot of help and teachings from the community when I was starting out,” Sayyid said. “We’re living within the progression of the seasons. For us, it’s really about being in balance with nature.”

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Sayyid Bey, 45, walks into a donated trailer on July 27, 2021, that will serve as his temporary home in Sycan Forest Estates, north of Bly, Oregon, until he’s able to rebuild. (Maranie R. Staab/VICE News)

Before the Bootleg Fire, which has ravaged 413,762 acres and could burn until fall, Sayyid lived with Nicolas, his wife, and her two daughters. He’d recently built a three-person bunk bed for the children. He wanted to teach them self-sufficiency and the value of living in close proximity to nature.  

But after the fire, his wife and daughters—unable to cope with the loss and overwhelming task of rebuilding—moved to California to live with her family. Now, it’s just Sayyid and Nicolas. 

“This fire broke us up, and that hurts. In addition to everything else, I might also lose my wife.” 

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Nicolas Bey, 11, stares out the window of a donated trailer on July 24, 2021, in Sycan Forest Estates, north of Bly, Oregon. The trailer will serve as a temporary home until his father, Sayyid, is able to rebuild. (Maranie R. Staab/VICE News)

The night they evacuated, Sayyid and his family barely escaped the several-story-high flames that tore across the drought-stricken land. Exacerbated by excessive heat and a lack of rain, wildfires in Oregon so far this year have burned 60 times more acreage than this time last year. The season is also starting earlier and lasting longer. In early July—a full month before wildfire season typically begins—wildfires ignited throughout the West.

“There was fire blowing 200 feet in the air, and at the same time, the wind was blowing really, really fast, so the gusts were like 30, 35 miles per hour,” Sayyid said. 

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“By the time we got back, nothing was standing. Everything except the shed and the garbage was disintegrated to ashes. It was like a stab in the heart. Everything I built, the memories we had, the clothes and the memorabilia, the pictures and the toys. Everything was gone,” he added.

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Sayyid Bey's neighbor holds out a pine cone to show the effects of the fire on the forest while voicing his concern about regrowth and rebuilding, July 24, 2021, in Sycan Forest Estates, north of Bly, Oregon. (Maranie R. Staab/VICE News)

In the nearby town of Bly, with a population of 486, the fire department now doubles as a donation center for those affected by the Bootleg Fire. Bags and boxes of pet supplies, toiletries, tents, and food and water are stacked high on tables and shelves. The donations arriving from across the country have included several trailers and vehicles, a gesture that put a roof over Sayyid and Nicolas, who had resorted to a tent and sleeping bags.

“I’m grateful to not be sleeping in a tent, but it’s time to rebuild. Winter is coming,” said Sayyid, whose sister created a GoFundMe to help rebuild his home and replace items lost in the fire.

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Sayyid Bey, 45, wipes soot from his son Nicolas’ face during a trip into the town of Bly, Oregon, on July 26, 2021. (Maranie R. Staab/VICE News)

Though left with little, Sayyid and others in the Sycan Forest Estates community pooled their resources to purchase a sawmill and will soon begin the process of rebuilding by felling partially burned trees. For most, wood from the store is too expensive, and many of the burned pines will still make usable lumber. Beginning with the elderly and those less physically able, the community plans to cut enough wood to rebuild everyone’s homes. 

“The one good thing is that the land is still here. It’s my land. I’m not going to leave. I’m not going to let this bring me down, I’m not going to allow this to depress me. We’re going to make it, because what choice do we have?” Sayyid asked. “This is home.”