The residents of Detroit, Oregon, have often worried about what would happen if wildfire visited their lakeside town.
They looked up at the mountains surrounding them — the three forested canyons all rushing down to converge, like a funnel, roughly where they lived — and they wondered.
“We’ve looked at the three canyon thing for a long time,” Detroit Mayor Jim Trett said Wednesday. “We’ve said for years ‘We dodged a bullet,’ and this time it looks like we didn’t dodge it.”
Trett was one of the hundreds of people who showed up to an evacuation center at the state fairgrounds in Salem on Wednesday as unprecedented weather continued to spur one of the most devastating wildfire seasons in Oregon history.
Workers and volunteers with the American Red Cross and Marion County have been at the fairgrounds since Tuesday to hand out provisions like food and drink, toilet paper, diapers and pet food. They’ve also been trying to steer people toward vacant hotel rooms and have offered up dozens of cots or safe places to park for those who couldn’t find other options.
Many arrived at the fairgrounds smeared in soot, or in pajamas that were the only clothes they’d been able to take as they fled the encroaching fires, or with cars haphazardly crammed full of belongings. Some came with traumatized pets or livestock, which were put up, fittingly, in the fairgrounds' stables and livestock pavilion.
Trett was there on more official business. As he made his way toward the livestock pavilion to meet another Detroit resident Wednesday afternoon, the four-year Detroit mayor worried about what he would tell his community.
An hour before, he’d learned the Lionshead Fire that began near the Warm Springs Reservation had surged overnight, plummeting down the slopes to his city.
“We were afraid of high winds and it kinda came in the back door,” Trett said. “All they’ve said right now is that it’s been hit hard. We’re just kinda crossing our fingers and hoping for the best but preparing for the worst.”
In another corner of the fairgrounds, one of Trett’s constituents hadn’t yet heard the news.
Chris Lyon has lived in Detroit for much of her 71 years and is used to seeing crews battling seasonal fires up in the hills. She’s also used to the seasonal partying her lake town draws. So on Labor Day, as the winds whipped fires ever closer, Lyon said she didn’t believe the hoopla. All she wanted was sleep.
“I had a rough weekend: Four days of people having a ‘Detroit experience,’” Lyon said. “So I needed a nap and that’s what I did.”
By the next morning, the town was nearly abandoned.
“There were some guys at the fire station,” Lyon said. “I went and asked if I could get out and they said ‘no,’ but they were going to get together a convoy and drag us through.”
Lyon became part of an operation that has taken on an almost cinematic flair, after the Idanha-Detroit Rural Fire Protection District posted an account to Facebook of how it evacuated around 70 late-staying residents, and its own firefighters, just in time.
“Due to Highway 22 being blocked on both ends of the district by boulders and downed burning trees, we called in the National Guard for an air evacuation, but they were unable to land due to high winds and heavy smoke,” the post said.
Firefighters had already told Lyon and other residents to meet at the Mongold day-use area on the lake, and the fire district post suggested they had nearly given up hope of getting people out in time.
“We were preparing to move people to the docks for a ‘last stand,’” the post said, “but the Forest Service was able to find an evacuation route up to Government Camp using forest roads.”
Lyon’s version of the experience was less harrowing. The longtime mountain-dweller said firefighters had first told people to expect to evacuate together down to Sisters, with an ODOT snowplow clearing debris ahead.
“Then we were going up the road and they turned us over to Breitenbush, and I go, ‘change of plans!’” Lyon said. “But it was all good. [The roads] are paved but real narrow — just two lanes and lots and lots of debris. We went through fire on both sides of the road.'”
Lyon and her dog, Joy, spent the night in her car, gathering provisions from the fairgrounds evacuation center. But as of early Wednesday afternoon, word about her hometown had not circulated.
Lyon wondered when the road might open up, so she could go and survey her home. Meanwhile, Gov. Kate Brown told reporters in a news briefing that Detroit was among a number of towns that had been “substantially destroyed.”
“I have heard bits and pieces,” Lyon said. “One guy was here … He said he heard that the fire come up over the ridge and down to the lake and quit, and it didn’t affect the town. Then it wiped out all down below.”
Indeed, gathered at the fairground evacuation site on Wednesday were people from towns up and down the Santiam Canyon, one of the hardest-hit areas of the state. Cities like Gates, Mill City and Lyons have all taken serious damage.
Dennis Mahlum and his wife were among those who had no illusions of what might be waiting for them up the mountain. The riverside home they’d built in Gates just three years ago was gone.
“It’s all burnt up,” said Mahlum, 77. “There’s only a couple houses that we know of that didn’t get burnt to the ground.”
The sheer sweep of this week’s fires had led to another big loss for the family, too. He believed his son’s home, far to the north near Molalla, had also likely burned overnight.
Michelle Persyn and Gabriel Roth were still wondering about the fate of their trailer Wednesday afternoon.
The couple had been doing seasonal farmwork on a friend’s property near Silver Falls State Park, with spotty cell service and not much information about what was coming. They expected a windstorm, but awoke early Tuesday to their boss screaming at them to evacuate.
“You could see embers coming down,” said Roth, 37. “It looked like Mordor. It looked straight out of Lord of the Rings.”
Without time to hitch up their trailer or round up clothes, the couple gathered up their dogs and sped down the mountain. On Wednesday, they showed up to the fairgrounds in pajamas, and picked up a bag of dog food, utterly at a loss for how to proceed.
“We’re debating, should we go to the coast where we have friends, or should we wait around and see if the road’s open and the fire’s not there,” said Persyn.
“We’d be able to go get our trailer and just high-tail it out,” Roth said. “Thelma and Louise style.”