Once in a century: Wind-whipped fires devastate some, threaten others

September 2020 Posted in Uncategorized
Sept. 9 in Silverton during the height of the smoke from the Beachie Creek Fire.  Photo by Jim Kinhorn

Sept. 9 in Silverton during the height of the smoke from the Beachie Creek Fire. Photo by Jim Kinhorn

By Melissa Wagoner

In the midst of a global pandemic, with civil unrest in the streets, a new catastrophe has come knocking. On Sept. 7 unusually high summer winds joined forces with three decades of drought to ignite fires across Oregon. “We are currently facing a statewide fire emergency,” Gov. Kate Brown, said during a press conference on Sept. 9. “Over the last 24 hours Oregon has experienced unprecedented fire damage.”

Sept. 8 and 9 saw the height of an oppressive smoke cloud fill the Willamette Valley, blocking out the sun. While the area near Silver Falls State Park and Scotts Mills were evacuated, Silverton and Mount Angel were in “Level 2: Be Set” evacuation standby.

With 35 large fires burning and numerous small fires continuing to erupt, Brown warned Oregonians that the worst is yet to come.

“I want to be up front in saying that we expect to see a great deal of loss, both in structures and in human lives,” Brown said. “This could be the greatest loss of human lives and property in our state’s history.”

As of Our Town press time the combination of two fires – the Beachie Creek Fire, which started near Opal Creek in late August, and the Lionshead Fire in Clackamas County – became the newly coined Santiam Fire. It has already caused the evacuation of thousands, including residents of Scotts Mills and areas near Silver Falls State Park, and put the cities of Mount Angel and Silverton on alert for possible evacuation orders.

“I was tired and trying to be calm but knew I was forgetting things,” Edie Sperling said. She evacuated from her home near Silver Falls State Park in the early morning hours of Sept. 8. “We had gone to bed knowing Highway 22 was closing, which is about 30 minutes from our house, but I still didn’t think (despite all the warnings) that the fire would move that fast.”

That wind-whipped speed, the very reason the fires have been so dangerous, is why emergency response personnel like Mariana Ruiz-Temple, Oregon’s Deputy Chief Fire Marshal, urged all Oregon residents to take the state’s fire precautions seriously.

“I ask that everybody understand the levels: One, Two and Three,” Ruiz-Temple stressed. “They need to know what they would take with them, be ready to go and stay tuned to all emergency management.”

Level 1 is a reminder for residents in the identified area to be ready – packing valuables and important documents and monitoring reputable emergency networks.

“Know where you’re going to go and what you’re going to bring with you,” Andrew Phelps, Director of the Office of Emergency Management, said. “But if you’re in a safe place, stay home. Reduce the impact of being out on the road.”

Level 2, which has included the majority Mount Angel, Silverton, Stayton and Sublimity over recent days, is commonly referred to as “Be Set” – prepared to evacuate immediately on short notice.

Level 3 is “Go now!”

Warnings, can be confusing, especially when attached to various emergency platforms, each taking a different stance.

“There is a rapidly moving fire occurring in your area,” the citizen alert, METCOM 9-1-1, sent to area residents at 10:14 a.m. on Sept. 7. “Residents should either voluntarily relocate outside of the affected area, or if choosing to remain, be ready to evacuate at a moment’s notice. Residents may have time to gather necessary items, but doing so is at their own risk. This may be the only notice you receive – emergency services cannot guarantee that they will be able to notify you if conditions rapidly deteriorate.”

St. Mary's Church in Mount Angel on Sept. 9. Photo by Jim Kinghorn

St. Mary’s Church in Mount Angel on Sept. 9. Photo by Jim Kinghorn

Thus, although the area’s evacuation level has remained unchanged at Level 2 for several days, many residents chose to preemptively leave.

“We left Silverton about noon, we’re staying in our RV,” Lynn Williams said after relocating to the Oregon State Fairgrounds on Sept. 8 along with an estimated 600 other evacuees.

“This morning we went into the pavilion where the Red Cross was set up. I couldn’t believe the supplies. Snacks, energy bars, fruit, bread, cereal boxes, pet food, water. It looks like a 7-11. There are cots set up for sleeping and tables for people to sit…

“Being here in the midst of a pandemic and an evacuation is scary but there is comfort in knowing everyone is in the same circumstance.”

Those without access to transportation – like many of Silverton’s unhoused population – are unable to evacuate even if they receive the notice.

“Many were unaware that we had hit Level 2 evacuation protocols,” Sarah White, Director of Sheltering Silverton, said of those living without a typical residence in and around the city. “Our biggest concern was for our unhoused or marginally housed neighbors who lack transportation. Our worry was that they wouldn’t be able to get out in time if things shifted rapidly.”

With that in mind, White and her husband, Dmitry, helped several people relocate to a safer property on the west side of town.

“We are using that as a staging area, in case we need to further evacuate,” she explained. “Our house manager at the farm is working hard to feed and welcome the few extra folks who are there right now. We also know several people who live outside who are elderly or have serious lung illness. We’ve encouraged them to seek shelter indoors to escape the hazardous air conditions.

“For now, everyone we work with is safe and has a plan for evacuation, if they haven’t already gotten out.”

An “all-hands-on-deck” moment is how Gov. Brown described the current situation. Which is why people like White, and others within the community who have stepped forward to help their neighbors, have such an important role.

“We cooked on Monday,” Holly Kintz said. She and partner Gabbi Smith own Nourished Beginnings, a meal delivery service in Silverton that helped to donate an entire week’s worth of dinners to frontline workers.

“We called and texted and many of our customers told us to donate to local first responders,” Kintz said. “We were able to donate about 150 dinners between the Mt. Angel Fire Department, Silverton Police and Silverton Fire Department. This was not our generosity; it was absolutely our customers paying it forward and taking care of their community.”

They’re not the only ones. EZ Orchards Farm Market delivered apples and fresh donuts to the Oregon State Fairgrounds.

“Our family has been part of the

community for 150 years and we want to be there for our friends, neighbors and customers,” the store’s owners said when. “Many of our customers are from the Silverton area, and we hope and pray that they are all safe.”

And the kind deeds continue.

“As is always the case in our amazing community, tragedy, or the threat of it, brings out the best in all of us,” Mayor Kyle Palmer wrote in a Facebook post. “I’ve had numerous messages from people asking how they can help… I know that city staff put the Silver Trolley to work helping some of their vulnerable riders mobilize. I know that strangers are roaming the Willamette Valley helping move livestock and pets without any need for pay or recognition. I know that people were helping their neighbors everywhere. I know that our city staff has been fully mobilized to help manage the vital systems and infrastructure in our community.

“Most of all… thank you deeply to our first responders, and their families who are living with the knowledge that their partners are voluntarily in danger for us.”

Gov. Brown also took time to give special thanks to the first responders, calling on all those in affected areas to take prompt and decisive action when asked to evacuate an area.

“If you hear only one thing today, hear this,” she implored. “Please pay attention to the directions from fire fighters, local officials and emergency responders. If you are asked to evacuate, do so immediately. Your choices, to evacuate, to help others to safety will save lives, including possibly your own.”

Once out, stay away, officials advise.

“It is not safe to come back up here,” Drakes Crossing Fire District Training Captain Chris DeBrito posted on Sept. 9. Adding that while there was still no fire in the district and no structures lost, the unpredictability of the fire was far too dangerous for anyone to return.

“Please stay away,” he urged. “We are dealing with people coming up ‘just to see the fire.’”

While a drive to check on a house or a piece of property is tempting, these fires – currently at more than 300,000 acres and over 500 square miles – should not be taken lightly.

“Please stay safe,” Gov. Brown requested. “Please be careful. And if you’re in a community where an evacuation order is issued, please respond. You might not get a second chance.”


Photo by Jim Kinhorn

Photo by Jim Kinhorn



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