Fleeing wildfires, families wait for news at Oregon State Fairgrounds in Salem

The Oregon State Fairgrounds around 9 a.m. Tuesday, as hundreds of families gathered after wildfire evacuations in the Santiam Canyon area. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Hundreds of families living up the Santiam Canyon have gathered at the Oregon State Fairgrounds in Salem, waiting for news about their homes and relatives.

Just after midnight, the Marion County Sheriff’s Office notified residents in the Santiam Canyon to leave immediately. Around 3 a.m. Marion County Emergency Management coordinated with the American Red Cross to open the fairgrounds staging area.

Around 8 a.m., a few people sat outside the Jackman Long Building, scanning their phones for news. Some people dozed in the front seat of their cars, parked across the street. Others paced with dogs on leashes.

Francisco Maldonado said he was out in the family goat pasture Monday when a sheriff’s deputy came by and told them to prepare to evacuate. He and his mother live about a mile away from Salmon Falls and have about two dozen miniature goats on the property.

Around 5 p.m., they loaded the goats up and took them to a pasture closer to Stayton.

“We didn’t want them to die of smoke inhalation,” Maldonado said.

Tuesday morning, he was trying to find a spot for his mother to bring the herd outside the evacuation zone. After an 8:45 a.m. phone call, he reported she’d loaded about 18 goats in the back of her truck and was headed toward Salem. Maldonado planned to see if the stables at the fairgrounds would be open for livestock being evacuated.

He said they hadn’t heard whether their house was still standing.

“I don’t know if it’s on the good side or the bad side of the fire,” he said.

He talked the situation over with Red Cross volunteers, who checked families in at a table in the fairgrounds parking lot on the west side of 17th Street.

Robert Burns, a first responder from Dallas, and his son Dakota, pulled into the lot around 8:30 a.m. to deliver crates of bottled water donated by the Dallas Safeway.

“This is insane,” he said, surveying the parking lot, where people wrapped in quilts and blankets huddled under a dark, orange sky.

Burns said he felt compelled to come help, and had brought tents and other supplies to give to people in need. He hadn’t heard from his niece, who lives in the canyon in the evacuation area.

“I’m hoping she got out,” he said.

David Driver, 82, and his wife Caroline, 74, arrived at the fairgrounds around 8:30 a.m. after sleeping about three hours in their van in Stayton.

The couple evacuated their home in Gates around midnight after an order from the Marion County Sheriff’s Office, taking a car and a van. They’d packed deeds to the home, which David Driver built in 1995 on a parcel on the Linn County side of town.

The couple assumed their home had burned. Driver said he wasn’t sure where they would live now – he didn’t see building another house from the ground up in his future.

“I’m just too old to do that again,” Driver said.

They left Stayton around 7 a.m. after a deputy knocked on their window and advised them to evacuate. Driver had just finished brewing coffee in the van, and the couple drove their two vehicles into Salem.

“She didn’t even complain about my driving,” he joked.

DO YOU HAVE INFORMATION? If you have details about the fire or photos or videos to share, please contact Salem Reporter at [email protected] so we can provide updated information.

Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.