Oregon mayor describes confusion, terror of midnight evacuation

By Dave Miller (OPB)
Sept. 11, 2020 7:28 p.m.

Calls to evacuate the town of Detroit came in the middle of the night. Now residents are trying to determine what was was burned — and how much of the community has survived.

This week, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown listed several cities as being “substantially destroyed” due to destructive wildfires across the state: the Almeda Fire in Southern Oregon had ripped through Phoenix and Talent, the Holiday Farm Fire had burned Blue River in Lane County, and the fires in the Santiam Canyon had decimated Detroit, southeast of Salem.


“Think Out Loud” spoke to Detroit Mayor Jim Trett Thursday about the damage to his city. Their conversation follows, edited for brevity and clarity.

Dave Miller: Can you describe the evacuation in the middle of the night, when Monday night turned to Tuesday?

Jim Trett: It was frantic. The calls started about midnight to evacuate. We had hadn’t even been declared a Level 1 as of yet, which is just “Listen.” We went from nothing to a Level 3, and in less than 24 hours. But when they called at midnight, we had people in bed, and the way they got told it was just people pounding on their doors saying “get out.”

It was — we were directed to go east towards Bend, because the westbound lanes of Highway 22 towards Salem were blocked. Then, I understand, rocks and trees fell on the highway east of town, so we were redirected west. There was confusion as to which way to go for a while. And then, by the time they got to Mill City, those people going east and people going west through some pretty messy fires on both sides of the highways. I talked to people who said it was one of the scariest, if not the most scariest, moment of their life, including people who have fought forest fires.

Miller: Where did everybody end up?

Trett: We have people on the east side in Redmond — the fairgrounds over there is an evacuation center. We have an evacuation center at the state fairgrounds in Salem. Those centers are trying to put people into hotels because of the COVID thing. They’re not doing the mass evacuation centers that we’re used to seeing in other disasters, they’re trying to get them out. People are going to homes of friends and family.

I personally have had people for two days saying, “If you need a place, come here and we’ve got you covered.” That part has been gratifying and really helpful for people.

Miller: Have you been back to see your city with your own eyes?

Trett: No. And I’m climbing the walls like most of our citizens are. I’ve seen the videos and I’m devastated by it. I am one of few fortunate ones who found out yesterday — I thought my house was gone and then yesterday afternoon found out it was not. [The fire] kind of went around the end of our street. We’re still trying to figure out how that happened. And there were a couple other little pockets of homes, but most — pretty much all — of our businesses with the exception of possibly one store are gone and, and majority of our homes are gone.

Miller: Where are you able to get this information from? Is it simply from the videos that people are posting on Facebook or Twitter?

Trett: Getting some from that. I’m pretty much living at the Forest Service’s command center, which is now located at Chemeketa Community College in Salem. They have provided a liaison to me that has just been absolutely fantastic to work with at getting me valid information as soon as they can verify it. Any question I’ve asked them, if they don’t know the answer, they work hard to find the answer. So we’re getting it from that. We’re getting it from the Marion County Sheriff’s office — all the people up in the canyon doing the work that needs to be done have been very, very communicative with me. And I am trying to share that with people through our social media sites as best I can.

Miller: What do you see as your role as mayor of Detroit right now?


Trett: Right now, it’s just to do what we’re doing, keeping people informed as well as we can. But we’re also beginning to start looking at how we’re going to get the city business back up and running, in terms of getting things done that will need to be done to rebuild, conversations with the governor’s office, county commissioners on steps that we need to do.

But right now it’s just the basics of — our paperwork, getting computers somewhere, and how we are going to work and go up there, when we can get back in there to have a city hall, if you will. We have a private citizen who bought our old school site. It still has a gymnasium. And he and I are talking, but I understand he’s going to make that available for us to use as a “city hall” meeting center. So things like that are what we’re doing now in terms of just trying to get over what has happened, which has hit us all like a hit in the face, like you can’t believe — and getting ourselves ready to move forward.

Miller: Can you give us a sense for the kinds of conversations you’ve had with residents, who you’ve already been able to determine and they know as well that they have lost their homes or their businesses. What are those conversations like?

Trett: Hard. And even harder for me, personally, after I found out mine was OK. I’ve talked the way I’ve talked to some people who have found out their homes are there and we’re all expressing the same kind of emotion: at first, how grateful, followed by actually a sense of guilt that we’re still there and our neighbors and friends aren’t. Talking to people who have lost their homes, of course, it’s devastation. For some of them — a lot of them — it’s second homes, but it’s a very integral part in their lives, a part that they love. There’s that loss. But we’re also beginning to hear, “OK, how do we rebuild? When do we start?” And we’re beginning to come around to that mode of thinking of, “It’s happened, we’re going to deal with it and we’re going to move forward and grow, and hopefully be even better than we were."

Miller: Just to be clear here, because we’ve been focusing here on loss of structures and buildings and businesses and homes. There have been reports in Marion County of some losses of life. Some people who’ve died. That’s not the case in Detroit to the best of your knowledge?

Trett: To the best of my knowledge. We do know that some people were choosing to stay when they got the evacuation order. I know some of them did decide to leave after they saw what was coming down the hill — or the mountain. We don’t know that everybody left and we don’t know if — we haven’t looked at all the structures yet. That they’re trying to do that today [Thursday]. I think the Forest Service has an evaluation team up there, trying to figure out what structures are lost and looking for stuff like that, to make sure that nobody’s left behind.

Miller: You’re both the mayor and, if I understand the website correctly, the emergency response preparedness commissioner for the city. Was a fire of this magnitude on your radar?

Trett: Really, it was. When I got involved with the city, if you remember the Paradise Fire in California, one of the firefighters there who came from Woodburn to help fight that fire described the situation that Paradise was in — and three canyons coming together like a funnel. Paradise was at the bottom of the funnel. Well, Detroit is in the exact same place. We have three canyons above us, funneling down, coming out of Detroit and onto the lake. And, it’s the exact same situation. The Lionshead Fire started up in that canyon, along with the Beachie Creek Fire, which actually didn’t do as much damage as we thought, we think. But came down that canyon and rolled into town with some winds on Monday night, Tuesday morning.

Miller: So it’s one thing to say, “Hey, geographically, we’re in a precarious situation.” What follows? Obviously, knowing that didn’t prevent this destruction. What did you try to get state officials or local officials to do?

Trett: The U.S. Forest Service, which owns most of the property around us — it’s all U.S. Forest Service or BLM [Bureau of Land Management] land that surrounds Detroit other than the lake — and they have done a very good job of clearing a firebreak, around the city, clearing out dead and dying timber. They had been doing that for years, several years. We felt comfortable with what they had done, but this thing was just so big a firebreak wasn’t going to stop it. I don’t know what else could have been done to keep that fire out of our community.

Miller: You mentioned that you’re climbing the walls because you can’t get to your city to actually see it with your own eyes. Do you have a sense for the timeline now of when authorities will let you back in?

Trett: Fire crews are still up there. The fire is out of town, but they’re using that to kind of make sure it doesn’t come back. One resident said they’re staging in her yard. She has seen it on some kind of video. So they’ve promised as soon as they can, they will get us back up in there. At least maybe some city folks, so we can kind of assess and, again, keep our citizens appraised, but there’s no definite timeline as to when. We’re hoping in the next day or two,

Miller: What can people do if they want to help right now?

Trett: Right now, it would be probably contact the Red Cross. They’re doing evacuation centers. We’re getting all kinds of emails, and I want to thank everyone for that — mails, phone calls, everything else saying, “What should we do, let us know?” I’m sure once we get to the point of cleaning up and rebuilding, we’ll be putting out calls for help. We’ll probably do that on social media.

People are donating clothes, but people I’ve talked to say, “We really appreciate it, but I don’t have any place to put them right now.” So, the Red Cross or agencies like that might be the best way to go right now. And then as we figure things out, we’ll I’m sure be asking for assistance from folks.

Miller: Jim Trett, thanks very much for joining us during a really heart wrenching time. We wish you, and the whole community there, the best of luck right now.

Trett: Thank you and to everybody — thank you for your prayers and thoughts that have been expressed to all of us. We really appreciate it, and we’re just going to be Detroit strong.