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Eugene Weekly : Coverstory : 6.18.2009

Killing Fields

Field burning’s deadly legacy from the I-5 pile-up to today’s toxic air

By Camilla Mortensen

The backyard of Stephanie Jorgensen in Stayton in August 2008 during a field burn. Courtesy Brizz Meddings/WELC.
Albert du Aime/William Wharton. Elena Seibert.
The du Aime-Rodewald family before the accident. Courtesy Camille du Aime Russel.

Kate du Aime Rodewald and her husband, Bill Rodewald, were driving north on I-5 from Eugene in a borrowed Volkswagen van with their baby girls Dayiel, age 2, and 8-month old Mia, when smoke drifted across the highway. The family had recently moved to Oregon to be near Bill Rodewald’s mother in Falls City, a small town west of Salem. They had just made an offer on a house and planned to move to Eugene and attend the UO that fall. 

Their plans ended forever when the smoke of a field burn blew across the highway on the afternoon of Aug. 3, 1988. Blinded by the smoke and in the smoky darkness the Rodewald’s van was hit from behind by an 18-wheeler and shoved beneath the vehicle in front of them. The family was burned alive in the fire that swept over the accident. In all, seven people were killed and 38 were injured in the 23-vehicle disaster that made headlines across the country. The only member of the du Aime-Rodewald family to survive that day was Kate’s son Wills, who had stayed home with his grandmother. 

The fight over field burning began in the 1960s, but that young family’s tragic death in 1988 is probably the grimmest reminder of the dangers of field burning smoke. This summer marks the release in paperback of William Wharton’s novel Ever After: A Father’s True Story that chronicles the life and death of his daughter, Kate du Aime Rodewald, and her family in that field burning accident, and it also marks yet another attempt in the Oregon Legislature to put an end to the controversial practice. A bill to phase-down the practice introduced by Gov. Ted Kulongoski died in committee, but Senate Bill 528, written as a ban on burning, is struggling its way from committees to the Senate this week, and its advocates have long hoped it would mark a complete

end to the fires in the grass seed fields of Oregon.

 

A Burning History

It was an accident that brought field burning to Oregon in the first place; an unplanned fire in a grass seed field in the 1940s eliminated a fungus that kept seeds from germinating, leading agronomists, like John Hardison, stationed at OSU and known as “the father of field burning,” to recommend the practice as a way of controlling pests and weeds and to reduce straw. 

By the 1960s thousands of acres of fields were being burnt, to the point where it created a “pall of smoke that frequently hangs over the valley for days on end,” according to a 1964 article in The Register-Guard. A prescient August 1963 R-G story warns, “Fields next to highways should not be burned when wind can blow smoke across the highway and jeopardize traffic.” 

But such warnings were not enough to prevent the 1988 accident, or any of the other smoke-induced wrecks in Oregon. According to archived newspaper reports: In 1968 smoke from a burn caused an accident injuring three people, two of them critically. In 1972 a rear-end collision near Scio left a man with permanent neck and back injuries. In 1978 a 22-car accident happened 17 miles north of Eugene on I-5. That same year field burning smoke piled up 10 cars near Madras injuring 16 people. In 1980 “near-zero visibility” caused a four-car wreck near Albany, and in 1981 another accident near Albany also involved four cars. 

But these days it’s not traffic accidents that have field-burning opponents concerned — though the acres of fields that are burned have been reduced — it’s the affects of the smoke on the lungs of Oregonians. As Rep. Paul Holvey, who introduced this year’s bill to end field burning puts it, “We’ve learned so much more about the health impacts.” According to the EPA the fine particulate matter caused by field burning smoke can penetrate to the deepest parts of the lungs and is linked to “numerous health problems including asthma, bronchitis, acute and chronic respiratory symptoms such as shortness of breath and painful breathing, and premature deaths.”

Two such premature deaths have happened in Idaho, a state where field burning is also hotly debated. Mary Bird, 68, died in 1986 of pulmonary emphysema aggravated by field burning, her husband, a doctor, said in an interview at the time with The Spokesman-Review, “She went through hell every smoky day.” Thirty-seven year old Sharon Vogel died of an asthma attack brought on by grass seed field burning smoke at her house in Sandpoint, Idaho. Her last words were “I don't want to die; I am going to die.”

Kate du Aime Rodewald was only two months short of her 36th birthday when field-burning smoke cut her life short. Her brother, Matthew du Aime, flew to Oregon for the funeral of his sister, her husband and their baby girls. “At the time of the accident,” he says, “It wasn’t clear what had happened.” When it became evident the accident was caused by field burning smoke, “it seemed so strange to me,” he says in a faint accent that hints of his upbringing both in the U.S. and in Europe.

As he was leaving Oregon for his return trip to France, he says he “borrowed a piece of paper at the luggage counter.” He wrote a letter that was published in The Oregonian and the R-G that asked grass seed farmers to give him an explanation for why they burned their fields or to convince him if “there are no viable alternatives.” He wrote, “I need a viable explanation for the death of these people I love so much.”

Oregonians responded, deploring the practice, du Aime says in a phone interview this week from the family’s houseboat in France. But the only response he got from the grass seed industry was to “try to take my quite naïve letter and try to twist it” in a journal put out by the industry. 

“Suddenly,” he says, “I began seeing the kind of sinister side to the grass seed industry.” 

Despite attempts by the industry to spin the field burning debate as an attack on small farmers, du Aime says, he “became aware a couple of really big farms” controlled the industry. Despite the reputation Oregonians have for rugged individualism, “I realized that there are economic forces,in Oregon which are not obvious, but they control a lot of things.”

The 2007 bill to ban grass seed field burning introduced by Rep. Holvey died in committee after a hearing with lobbying by major grass seed buyers Scotts Co. and J.R. Simplot.

Du Aime had lived in Oregon before working in a logging camp in The Dalles and had been excited that his sister had moved to Oregon. He says Oregon has always had “positive connotations for me.” It wasn’t until after the accident that killed his sister that he saw his first field burn. “What I saw looked like a mushroom cloud from a atomic bomb,” he says. 

Du Aime’s way of dealing with his grief was “to initially get very aggressively involved and angry,” he says. He wrote letters and arranged a meeting with then Gov. Neil Goldschmidt. His father Albert du Aime wrote not only letters to Goldschmidt but also a book about what had happened to try to deal with the death of his first-born child, and as a scathing indictment of field burning. “We cried and cried until our teeth hurt,” says Albert du Aime’s wife, Rosemary, “then we said, ‘Is this doing any good? Let’s stop this.’”

In one of his impassioned letters to Goldschmidt, du Aime wrote that he had begun writing the book titled Ever After about death of his daughter and her family: “I intend that the entire English speaking world should be aware of how easily they can be victimized by the forces of greed, power and ineptitude.”

The book was published in 1995, but Albert du Aime died last October without seeing his vow to put a stop to field burning in Oregon come to fruition.

 

Ever After

Albert du Aime was known as a painter, long before he was known as a novelist. Under the pen name William Wharton, he published 10 books in English including Birdy, winner of the National Book Award, and A Midnight Clear. Both were made into films. Du Aime guarded his privacy, never going on a book tour until the publication of Franky Furbo, a book based on stories he had told his children, that came out shortly after the accident says his literary agent Rosalie Siegel. He toured because “he felt so strongly,” she says. “He fought; he dealt with his grief by speaking out against field burning” while on the tour. He came and spoke at the Eugene Public Library, a talk, he writes, that was well-attended.

Of Ever After, the next book he wrote, “Has an autobiographical element to many of his books; this was his first non-fiction,” according to Siegel.

Du Aime in his forward to the work calls it “biography-autobiography-fiction.” It begins in Kate Rodewald’s voice, telling the story of how she met her husband, called Bert in the story, married him and moved to Oregon. She interrupts the narrative with minute references to the fact she is a voice from beyond the grave. Describing her daughter, Dayiel, Kate’s character says, “She seems to love life so much she hates to close her eyes. It’s as if she knows.” 

Her narrative ends with the accident, surrounded by smoke and with the truck bearing down on them: “I look back for the babies and hear them cry. There’s nothing we can do.”

The book, even when written in Kate’s voice, is raw with the author’s pain. The feeling intensifies when du Aime picks up the narrative, as “Will.” He chronicles the aftermath of the wreck and the journey he makes with Rosemary to Oregon to bury his daughter and her family. 

In the first of several scenes in which the family makes their spirits known from the “ever after” of the title, Kate, Bert and the children come to du Aime as he sleeps in Bert’s old bedroom in Falls City. Bert asks du Aime to get help from his brother Steve and go photograph their charred bodies, “It might help stop this damn field burning.”

Steve Rodewald says his brother had always been environmentally motivated, protesting the Trojan nuclear plant and participating in other causes.

Du Aime and Steve Rodewald did go photograph the bodies, a process grimly detailed in the book. The initial wreck horribly injured the family, but later autopsy reports show it was not the accident that killed them; they were burned alive.

 Later du Aime sent copies of those photos to Goldschmidt, accompanying one of his letters asking the governor to put an end to field burning. 

Ever After details the long and painful legal battle, as well as the correspondence with Goldschmidt that ensued after the accident. Rosemary du Aime says of that time and the deposition she gave, “we had to give evidence, it was horrible, I couldn’t stop crying.”

“It was a strange form of justice,” said Matthew du Aime, “They had a judge who was quite positive to the seed industry.”

“There was no sense,” he says, “of something wrong happened here.”

The book details as well the du Aime family’s struggle to comprehend why Oregonians would continue to allow the practice of field burning, knowing its health dangers. Du Aime unsuccessfully sought a jury trial, because he writes, “We want to rub the filth and stubble and the ashes onto the faces of everyone who has anything to do with field burning, want them to experience in total, complete detail, the destruction of my family.”

Though his letters back to du Aime express his sorrow and regret over the accident, Goldschmidt said through his press aide Gregg Kantor in an AP story, “any move to ban field burning ‘is really a decision to eliminate the (grass seed) industry.’” Kantor also said that Goldschmidt would not support a ban if it came up in the Legislature.

After the I-5 accident, a brief moratorium was imposed on field burning in Oregon, but it was soon lifted. 

Efforts to ban field burning have been introduced again and again, and each time, bans have become phase-downs. In 1988, some 168,000 acres were burned. Since then phase-downs have kept the number to no more than 50,000. 

Steve Rodewald, a native Oregonian, and his mother Betty Rodewald, like the du Aimes, fought for several years after the accident to end field burning. The resulting bill that was introduced in 1991 called for the phase-down in field burning that would make its most drastic reduction in 1997.

It was at that point, with field burning scaled back by almost 50,000 acres that the du Aimes and the Rodewalds took a step back from the fight to end the fires. “Quite literally,” says Rosemary du Aime, “we have heard nothing over the past 12 years.” She focuses on the positives, pointing out that du Aimes still have Wills, Kate du Aime Rodewald’s surviving son, who lives in California “We see each other as often as possible. That’s the goodness,” she says. 

Steve Rodewald has recently re-entered the fight to end field burning. Having grown up in rural Oregon, he says, “I never paid attention. It was just one of those things. It just seemed to be a part of Oregon. But after the accident, my attitude has changed. I started looking at the health impacts. It still hurts people, even though they have reduced it.”

Last summer while driving back from his son’s soccer match in Cottage Grove to his home in Monmouth, Steve Rodewald says he suddenly encountered a field burn near the freeway, just north of Eugene. “In the field to the west,” he says, “I could actually see the flames; there was light smoke across the highway.”

“It just did a lot of things in bringing back those memories of what my brother and his family went through,” he says.

Attorneys Charlie Tebbutt and Dan Galpern from the Western Environmental Law Center, who have been working on the campaign to end field burning, eventually contacted Rodewald. 

“It should have been banned in 1988 after it killed the Rodewald-du Aime family,” says Galpern. “It should have been banned in 2007 when we presented a mountain of evidence to the EPA. It should be banned today, it’s well past the time to end this practice.” 

On June 16, a subcommittee of the Joint Ways and Means Committee voted to pass SB 528, the bill to end field burning, on to the full committee. But the bill did not make it though the committee intact. An amendment to the bill changed it from a full ban on the practice to a phase-down in 2009 and a ban in 2010 and if the bill goes through, there will be another exception to the ban. Rep. Holvey of Eugene, one of the backers of a full burn on the practice says the most recent  exception was a result of “trying to secure the necessary votes,” to pass the bill, “and that is sometimes a moving target.” 

Sen. Floyd Prozanski, also of Eugene, calls the amendment “a significant compromise.” He clarifies that the exception only allows for the 15,000 acres of burning in parts of Marion and Linn counties, in the Silverton Hills area. The burning would be confined to “steep terrain and/or identified species.” The identified species he says are bent grass and fine fescue. The burning would not be allowed in the Lane, Benton or the rest of Linn county he says, calling it “very restrictive.”

The bill could make it through the Joint Ways and Means committee soon, and then make its way to the Oregon Senate’s floor for a vote.

If this ban goes through, will it be enough to protect the health and safety of Oregonians? Steve Rodewald says, “After the legislation that slowed it down, I thought it’s been resolved.”

But he says, “I failed my brother and his family by not seeing this to its end.”