Verlyn Aerni fled Mill City Tuesday the way many of his neighbors did: with the hope that their lawn sprinklers would protect their homes from the firestorm sweeping through town.
“All of our homes, before we left, we have sprinklers up on the roof, sprinkling right now,” Aerni said Tuesday while stopped in the nearby city of Stayton, which was then not yet in the Level 3 “go now” evacuation stage. He’d gone straight to his daughter’s Stayton home before stopping in the local Safeway to get dog food. It was one of many things he didn’t have with him when he left.
“I forgot my watch, and don’t tell the police, but I forgot my driver’s license,” he said.
Aerni still held out hope his home would survive. But people living in towns and on farms and rural homesteads up and down the Santiam Canyon between Salem and the Cascades weren’t so fortunate. Before Aerni fled Mill City, he learned that Kelly Lumber, owned by one of his friends from high school, had burned to the ground.
Another Mill City resident, Pat Podrabsky, described a town in ruins.
“There are so many things gone. Mill City is gone,” she said before listing several businesses that she knew or had heard had burned down.
“And we don’t know about our house yet,” Podrabsky added. “We heard our neighbor’s was on fire but we don’t know.”
It was a day of confusion, loss, hope and worry. The disorientation wasn’t helped by howling wind gusts, the hot air’s acrid tinge, or the red, smoke-darkened sun at noon — all conditions created by unusually hot, windy weather and the resulting firestorm.
The fire prompted a Level 3 “go now” evacuation for Mill City and neighboring towns in the canyon: Lyons, Mehama, Detroit and Idanha. Nearby, a Level 3 order was given to Highway 214 North of Silver Falls State Park to Scotts Mills.
Evacuees were sent to shelter at the Oregon State Fair & Exposition Center in Salem, which was filling up by the afternoon. To make more room, Linn County Fairgrounds in Albany was used to shelter more people fleeing the fire. It had about 100 people by early evening.
Reporters weren’t permitted inside the evacuation shelter. County officials said they had adjusted their plans for running an emergency evacuation center months ago to make sure health and social distancing standards were in place to keep people safe during the pandemic.
Jerry Vavra was among those who took shelter in Albany. Around 9 p.m. Monday he got a call from his neighbor in Gates telling him there was a fire on Potato Hill. Sure enough, he could see it. And it was headed his way.
“We knew we had to get out of there,” he said. His main concern was saving his pets and horses. By the time he got them loaded up the fire was already at the bottom of his property and spreading fast. “It looked like we were actually in hell,” he said. “The whole hillside looked like a bunch of lava flows. It was surreal. I’ve never seen anything like that.”
Vavra said he and his wife got out a little faster than their neighbors, who he later heard were injured by the flames. When they circled back to grab some valuable paperwork from their home they saw flames on both sides of the highway in Mill City and Gates. “It looked like a war zone,” he said. “We barely got through. It was a close shave.”
Vavra and his wife brought their two horses to the evacuation center at the Linn County Fairgrounds, where the stables were already about 75% full Tuesday afternoon. For them and hundreds of other evacuees in the Willamette Valley, the only thing they can do now is wait and see what’s left of their home. “Hopefully our house is still intact, but I don’t know,” Vavra said. “We had a big barn with stables and a huge chicken coop with 60 chickens in it. I don’t know if they survived.”
Vavra heard from a firefighter that his professional photography studio had definitely burned to the ground. “I lost all my photos. I lost over 300,000 files," Vavra said. "It’s all gone. You can’t replace it. I had backups for everything but they were in the studio too.”
Todd Noble, the Linn County health administrator, said the evacuation center was housing about 100 people and more animals than people on Tuesday afternoon. Community members were dropping off unsolicited donations of water, blankets, food and animal feed. “They’re just showing up,” he said. The Linn County fairgrounds has room for about 150 people under a socially distanced emergency evacuation plan set up for the pandemic. Benton County Fairgrounds will open as needed if the Linn County evacuation center fills up.
State Rep. Shelly Boshart Davis was helping coordinate volunteers in the livestock area.
“We’ve had people rolling in all day long, whether they’re displaced, whether they have animals, whether they’re here to volunteer or drop off supplies,” the Albany Republican said. “We have people evacuating tons of horses, all kinds of livestock, rabbits are coming in, chickens are coming in, we had a Subaru come in with their goats in the back seat.”
She helped connect a volunteer who had a horse trailer with a farmer who had 30 goats needing evacuation. “I was born and raised here,” she said. “This community has always stepped up for whatever is needed. Unfortunately we have to do it today and it’s heartbreaking to watch but amazing to see.”