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Environmental activist confirmed dead in Oregon wildfire

Environmental activist confirmed dead in Oregon wildfire
Oregon environmentalist George Atiyeh, 72, was confirmed dead this week after a wildfire in the region burned his home earlier this month. Photo via the Opal Creek Ancient Forest Center/Facebook

Sept. 26 (UPI) -- A well-known Oregon environmentalist who has been missing since Sept. 7 amid wildfires in the region was confirmed dead Friday in the forest he spent much of his life trying to save.

Family members of 72-year-old George Atiyeh said in a Friday night Facebook post that authorities had confirmed that remains found on Atiyeh's burned property belonged to him.

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"Although we are saddened that this was the final outcome, we are thankful to finally have closure," wrote his daughter, Aniese Mitchell. "We appreciate all the love and support from family, friends and community."

Atiyeh is believed to be the fifth person killed by the Beachie Creek Fire, a combination of two infernos - one that began in the Opal Creek Wilderness and another that sparked on downed power lines in the Santiam Canyon.

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As of Friday, the fire was 50% contained.

Atiyeh was the nephew of former Oregon Gov. Vic Atiyeh, and his family owned a mining operation in the woods near Oregon's Opal Creek.

He started his working life in the family business as a miner, then became a logger -- but he joined the environmental movement when he learned the U.S. Forest Service was considering logging the old-growth forest near his childhood home.

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The Opal Creek area was one of the last roadless, uncut forests in the Cascade Foothills, and Atiyeh flew in journalists, politicians and celebrities during what would eventually be dubbed the Timber Wars of the 1980s and 1990s in an effort to save the forest.

Atiyeh's activism cost him friends in the industries he worked in early in life, and he admitted to using a combination of legal and "not-so-legal" tactics.

"I wasn't very nice," Atiyeh said in 2016. "I followed them around and pulled out their survey stakes. I stole their chainsaws and ripped down their flagging. We put snow in their gas tanks and would steal their lunch."

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After an episode in which guns were drawn and Atiyeh was arrested, he changed his tactics.

Ultimately, he prevailed: in 1996, Oregon Sen. Mark Hatfield, a Republican, pushed through legislation creating the Opal Creek Wilderness and Scenic Recreation Area, encompassing 34,000 acres.

"Opal Creek's forest would have been cut without George, it's just that simple," friend Michael Donnelly told the Salem Statesman-Journal.

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