Through the flames: Silverton nurse recalls 2020 ordeal in canyon blaze

August 2021 Posted in Arts, Culture & History, Community, People

By Melissa Wagoner

Silver Falls State Park — courtesy of Jason Wagoner

When Holly Perez and her 16-year-old son, Sam, decided to get away for a couple of nights over Labor Day in 2020, they planned to do some swimming and enjoy the end of summer sun before school started up once again. What they didn’t anticipate was how their trip would end.

“I had no idea there was even the possibility of a wind storm,” Perez, a nurse in Salem, said of their first day of vacation, during which Detroit Lake was packed with vacationers enjoying the late summer sun under an only mildly smoky sky. 

“I had worked the night before, so had not really been in touch with social media or the weather reports,” she continued. Noting that, though they arrived early enough to go for a dip, they decided to forgo those plans, opting for a relaxing evening at their cabin instead.

“I knew there had been a fire in the Opal Creek area,” Perez recalled. “My understanding was it had been contained and was far enough from Detroit that I had no real concerns. My friend, who owns the cabin, had been there the entire weekend and actually left Monday around noon. She said the air was a bit smoky but everything was normal.”

Making themselves at home in the cabin, Perez and her son set about making dinner, enjoying it on the patio and planning for a swim the next day. 

“[B]oats were on the lake and people were swimming,” Perez recalled in a Facebook post she later wrote, outlining her experience. “There was a little breeze, but nothing drastic.”

Then, in an instant, everything changed.

Aftermath of last September’s fire in Detroit, Oregon

 

“[T]he wind began to pick up and the sky began to fill with an ominous dark smoke,” Holly wrote. “We went back into the cabin and talked about packing our things and leaving. The next thing we knew the power went out. We immediately packed up our things and loaded up the car.”

At that point Holly’s biggest concern was the wind, which was howling around them.

“I actually didn’t even feel fearful of the fire,” she recalled. “I had no idea how close it was. I was more worried about the wind storm. Tree limbs were falling on and around the cabin. I was worried a tree could possibly knock over a power line potentially starting a fire.”

Hoping to escape before the storm worsened, Holly and Sam jumped in her car and sped into the night – but it was not to be. Instead, the forest gate, which was electric, had been rendered permanently closed by the power outage, trapping them behind it.

“It would have been impossible to drive around the gate as there was a wall of cement blocks on the side of the gate and trees surrounding that wall,” Holly explained. “The other end of the   gate was blocked by trees.”

With no other choice, Holly placed a call to 911 but received unsettling news – it could be hours before help would arrive. They got back in the car and returned to the cabin.

“Over the next six hours Sam and I laid in bed ready to jump up and head out as soon as help arrived,” Holly remembered. “We could hear tree branches and limbs falling all around us outside the cabin. Loud crashing thuds. Even though it was nighttime, the sky was dark and smoky with an eerie red glow. I knew the fire was getting closer.”

The fire was, but help was not. In fact, another call placed to the 911 dispatcher revealed that she was no longer certain if rescuers could get to them at all. Now Holly knew they had no choice, they needed to open that gate. 

“Sam and I looked the gate over inside and out for the next half hour,” Holly recalled. 

That’s when they saw it, a metal bar long enough to reach the manual control lever inside the gate’s electrical box. 

“I used the metal rod to manipulate the inside of the lever and held it there until I was able to release the metal latch,” Holly wrote. “I yelled for Sam to try lifting the gate. He was able to lift the gate and hold it up until I drove the car through to the other side.”

Euphoria instantly set in. 

“[W]e felt so free and proud of ourselves,” Holly wrote. Adding, “We didn’t realize the nightmare home was only beginning.”

Over the next two hours Holly drove through a landscape of burning trees, burning homes and rescue personnel doing their best to fight back the rapidly spreading fire.

“Firefighters were trying to put out the fires as best they could,” Holly wrote. “At this point, it was like trying to put out a house fire with a water balloon. By this time, it was 3 a.m. and we had been stuck for about eight hours.”

To distract himself, Sam began recording the destruction on his phone – a short documentary that Holly would later share along with her written post. In it, Holly’s voice remains calm as she drives through and around the flames until, nearing the end of the clip, she is forced to drive over the fire itself. Her voice begins to shake and Sam takes over reassuring her. 

“[L]ooking back on that video I am not sure how I remained so calm,” Holly admitted. “Sam and I kept one another calm. I was more worried about my tires melting or my gas tank exploding than anything. Then at one-point Sam said the heat was coming through his window. I was worried the windows would shatter.”

But they didn’t shatter and the car made it back safely to their home in Silverton where Holly and Sam collapsed from a mixture of stress and exhaustion. Though even that slight reprieve didn’t last.

“Three hours later we awoke to the news of having to evacuate our home,” Holly wrote. “We packed a few things and headed to my sister-in-law’s.”

It’s been a year since that harrowing weekend. And, while Perez’s home and the Detroit cabin remained largely untouched by the fire, the same has not been true for Perez and her son.  

“My anxiety is really high because of a lot of triggers around the fire,” Perez said simply. 

She is not alone as many others reach this significant milestone still living without a home, still mourning friends and family members lost to the flames, still grieving the places they loved, which are forever changed. 

Thankfully, numerous organizations have stepped forward to help those in need including the Santiam Canyon Wildfire Relief Fund, the Santiam Service Integration Team, the Santiam Long Term Recovery Group and many more. 

“[T]here are so many people in the same boat,” Perez posted last year. “There are hundreds and hundreds of families living minute to minute right now with us. There are also hundreds of families who have lost everything they have in these fires. I take nothing for granted. I have my kids, family, friends, dogs and my life.”

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