Oregon law enforcement agencies have located all but two people reported missing in connection with the large, wind-driven fires that raced across Western Oregon earlier this month.
The fires killed nine people, according to the Oregon Office of Emergency Management.
Gov. Kate Brown initially warned Oregonians to brace for a “mass fatality” event, and hundreds of people were initially reported missing by worried friends and family. But as search and rescue teams have fanned out into towns and communities that burned and detectives have worked the phones, they have found virtually all of the missing.
Now law enforcement officials in the four counties hit hardest by the fires say that while the situation remains somewhat fluid, most people managed to evacuate safely, and they don’t think the death toll will continue to rise.
In Marion County, five people are confirmed dead in the Beachie Creek Fire, which burned much of the length of the Santiam Canyon, from the Opal Creek Wilderness to Mehama. It destroyed roughly 500 homes.
Four of the victims have been identified. They are Wyatt Tofte, 13, and Peggy Mosso, 71. Tofte’s family believes he died while trying to help his grandmother evacuate their home on Little North Fork Road in Lyons. Justin Cook, 41 and Cathy Cook, 71, also died while trying to evacuate their home in Lyons.
The fifth person who died has yet to be identified. Conservationist George Atiyeh is the last person still considered a missing person in connection with the Beachie Creek Fire. Search teams located human remains on Atiyeh’s property, but haven’t finished the identification process.
Some in Marion County survived the night by wading into rivers and creeks, and dozens were led in a convoy out of Detroit in a dramatic last-minute rescue after helicopters were unable to land to evacuate them.
“It will take a long time for the community to recover from this. The continued support for community members is critical to healing for the Santiam Canyon area,” said Jeremy Landers, a spokesman for the Marion County Sheriff’s Office.
Landers believes that two factors saved Marion County from an even greater loss of life: improved evacuation plans for the Santiam Canyon that the county developed last year, and the quick response of community members as the fire blew up in the middle of the night on Labor Day and spread 20 miles down the canyon.
“It was neighbors helping neighbors get out, law enforcement helping other people get out, that led to so many people being evacuated safely,” he said.
In Jackson County, three people are confirmed dead in the Almeda Fire. No additional people believed to be in the path of the fire are missing, according to the sheriff’s office.
On Wednesday, the sheriff confirmed the identities of two victims, Donald Schmidt, 55, and Violet Lobdell, 92.
Both lived at Bear Lake Estates, a manufactured home park for people 55 and older in Phoenix. Schmidt was trying to help the other residents evacuate shortly before he died, according to local news reports.
The Almeda Fire is the subject of two criminal investigations. The Ashland Police Department is investigating the initial start of the fire, which it says was likely human-caused. The Jackson County Sheriff has charged a man with arson and other crimes for allegedly starting a second fire near the train tracks in Phoenix.
“The tragedy is that people lost their lives due to these acts by individuals, and in part, just due to a worst-case weather situation too,” said Mike Moran, a spokesman for the Jackson County Sheriff.
Many people feared a much greater loss of life, given how quickly the fire spread. It leveled much of Phoenix and Talent and destroyed 2,496 homes.
“When you look back on it and see the burn path, and the timeline, it’s miraculous, frankly,” Moran said.
In Lane County, the Holiday Farm Fire burning along the Mackenzie River drainage east of Eugene destroyed 431 homes and killed one person: David Perry, 59, of Vida.
Lane County initially received reports of 236 missing people. A team that included several retired detectives and a missing persons specialist worked on the cases, and the last missing person was located this week.
“It is a huge relief, and we are so thankful to all of the community members who assisted in locating these folks,” said Carrie Carver, spokesman for the Lane County Sheriff.
The successful escape of many in that fire’s path has been credited to the volunteer firefighters of the Upper McKenzie Rural Fire Protection District, and their chief, Christiana Rainbow Plews. Plews and her crew fought the fire and initiated rapid evacuations even as their own homes and fire station burned down.
Clackamas County considers one person potentially missing or unaccounted for in the Molalla area in connection to the Riverside Fire. However, that person is not a permanent resident and law enforcement believes they may have been elsewhere at the time of the fire.