People forced to flee wildfires in Oregon’s Santiam Canyon started to return Wednesday to assess the damage. Bob Stifel was among them, and he had no difficulty describing what it was like to check on the condition of homes for friends and family who had yet to return.
“It’s been a little heartache here, some heartache there, more heartache there. It’s like, when’s it going to quit?” Stifel said as he drove through the charred remains of Gates and Mill City, two out of a half-dozen communities through which fire swept Monday night and Tuesday.
He saw homeowners dousing the still-burning flames around their house, knowing that firefighting crews were spread too thin to be able to help them out. At one point, while Stifel was driving down a rural road outside Mill City, he spotted a burning garage on a property he knew very well.
“Originally that was my grandparents' house," Stifel said. “Yeah. That’s a tough one. It’s just burning.”
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Stifel hadn’t lost his own home to fire in Lyons; the flames never got close enough. But the chain of towns along Highway 22 and the North Fork Santiam River is like one big community that harbors years of memories for longtime residents like him.
His grandparents' home was also where family gatherings took place, where Stifel lived as a teenager after his father died, and the backdrop for snapshots that fill several families' photo albums.
He drove by what used to be the Gates Post Office, where one lonesome mailbox stood among a whole block of charred debris.
“There used to be a post office there,” he said. “My gosh. All those power lines are down. All of this, these were houses. These were all people’s homes.”
The Statesman Journal of Salem Wednesday reported the first confirmed casualties from the fire in the Santiam Canyon. They included a 13-year-old boy and his 71-year-old grandmother, both who had died. The boy’s 45-year-old mother was in critical care at Legacy Emanuel Hospital’s burn center in Portland. The devastation was uneven. The lakeside town of Detroit was largely destroyed while Mill City, despite the loss of several homes and prominent roadside businesses, was mostly spared.
Scott Downey was walking through the ashes of his house in Mill City Wednesday looking for his cat. “This is the first time I’ve been back,” he said. “I was hoping to find my cat 'cause I’m pretty attached to it. It’s part indoor, part outdoor and sleeps with us half the time. It was outside when we left.”
His house had completely burned, and across the street, flames were still burning at the end of an exposed gas line. The local utility was picking up down power lines, and the air was full of smoke and ash. “It’s a nightmare,” Downey said. “And it ain’t over yet. The wind’s picking up, and there’s still spot fires around. I’m just trying to keep it together.”
Ron Evans and his wife, Belinda Evans, were among the Gates residents who came back to check on their homes Wednesday. Luckily, their house was still standing. But their next-door neighbor’s house has burned to the ground. The blackened earth was still smoldering and small flames flared up around a grove of fir trees.
Ron Evans sprayed their smoking yard with water from his irrigation system. “We’re just making sure this doesn’t get started again,” he said as his wife filled buckets with water to dump around the trees. “We need to get that tree out there put out.”
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Ten minutes later the wind kicked up tongues of fire in the ground around the trees, and they had to switch to shoveling dirt.
“That’s all the water we have,” Belinda Evans said. Because the power has been shut off, the city water plant could not pump water to nearby houses. She called out for help to a fire engine that drove up to turn around in the driveway but it was headed to bigger fire down the road.
Even as flames persisted and buildings smoldered, residents like the Evanses found reasons to be optimistic.
The Gates motel they owned a few blocks away was already in ruins. “It’s gone,” Belinda Evans said. “We’ll do like everybody does. We’ll rebuild it.”
But Level 3 “Go Now” evacuation alerts that sounded on mobile phones in the area around 4:30 p.m. did more deliver a jarring warning to evacuate now. It also signaled that the fire was not done with the Santiam Canyon.