“Reluctant heroes” honored as Mill City remembers Beachie Creek Fire anniversary

Frances Thomas, left, hugs Mill City Mayor Tim Kirsch who helped her safely evacuate, prior to sharing her experiences with attendees during a memorial ceremony remembering the Beachie Creek Fire of 2020 in Mill City on Sunday, Sept. 5, 2021. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

Several hundred people gathered in Mill City’s Kimmel Park on Sunday share stories and honor their heroes from the Beachie Creek Fire of 2020.  

In the park’s grove of quiet trees overlooking the North Santiam River, Mayor Tim Kirsch officiated at “Mill City’s Canyon Strong Wildfire Memorial,” an event meant to bring healing and closure. Survivors of the fire, which hit town in the wee hours of Sept. 8, 2020 shared stories and numerous community members were recognized.

The first to speak was resident Frances Thomas. “At about midnight I was preparing to go to bed,” she told the crowd about the night of the fire. Thomas had been concerned about the possibility of the fires, because she knew the Beachie Creek had been growing since Aug. 16 – but the town was still on a low alert. 

“The first clues that something was really wrong was when I saw a glow on the hillside above my home,” Thomas said. “Then Tim Kirsch was at the door, and he told me the area was a Level 3, and I had 15 minutes to get out of town.” 

As soon as a few possessions were stowed in her SUV, “ash was falling in the driveway,” Thomas said. “It was time to go. The air was full of embers.”

“There were a lot of heroes that night,” said resident Dave Keasey, who spoke next from the small park stage. “Those firefighters who stood and fought; the many volunteers who stayed behind to help others, the neighbors who helped each other and countless others who may never be known.”

Government maps of the Beachie Creek Fire show a curtain of red covering nearly 200,000 acres of Santiam State Forest, with a fire line ruffling along the southern edge. Along that southern bottom is Mill City, the city itself a tiny unburned patch surrounded on three sides by a wavering red fire line of vast devastation. Fire hemmed in the town to the west, north and east. 

With the heavy winds that propelled the fire rushing through the Santiam Canyon, it is a wonder the town of 2,000 is still – mostly – standing.

Speaker Randall Klagge told the group how his family home along Highway 22 was lost. He said he woke Labor Day morning of the feeling uneasy, and the day afterwards was interspersed with little feelings of anxiety over the nearby fire.  

The feeling built, and, “that night, we saw fire at the top of the hill and started packing,” Klagge said. “Then a guy comes flying down the road, and says we had to leave. This filled my family with dread. We were frightened we’d lose our home.” 

Later that night the family’s “worst nightmare became a reality,” as, from an evacuated location, they saw a Facebook photo of their house being consumed by flames, Klagge said. 

Randall Klagge speaks of evacuating safely and then returning to find his family home destroyed during a memorial ceremony remembering the Beachie Creek Fire of 2020 in Mill City on Sunday, Sept. 5, 2021. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

Even after fire professionals were ordered to flee to safety, Mill City Fire Chief Leland Ohrt and twelve other Mill City firefighters, mostly local volunteers, stayed to protect the town and hundreds of area folk that night. These men were singled out repeatedly for praise.

“Leland took on taking care of the whole town,” Klagge said.

Towards the end of the Sunday event, Ohrt and eight of the twelve other firefighters were called forward one by one by name, and each applauded in turn. Those who did not appear were named and applauded as well. Each was “commended for countless acts of bravery” during the 2020 fire.

“This is a very humble bunch,” said Sandy Lyness, President of the North Santiam Chamber of Commerce, who called each name. “They are a group of reluctant heroes.”

The men who came forward appeared bashful and unassuming. When the crowd rose to its feet to give them a final standing ovation, several were visibly moved.

Many community members lingered for as much as an hour after the ceremony, sharing their stories and enjoying frankfurters from The Corn Dog Company of Central Oregon, a donation from Marion County.

Recollections of the fire came from every picnic table and gathering. People told tales of neighbors locating a beloved cat left behind; of ordinary people who donated resources to folks who suffered loss; those who helped others rebuild and neighbors sharing food, gas and goodwill. 

Attendee Karen Barlow said she was greatly touched by “all the people, the loggers and construction workers, who pulled up water trucks along the street to stop the fire. They lined up, and they literally stopped the fire from entering our town.”

Barlow’s son Russ, a public works supervisor, was among those who helped battle the flames. Barlow said he stayed put in the raging heat and smoke to make sure all the municipal generators and water kept running.

“If Russ hadn’t kept the wells and all that going, they wouldn’t have had the water to fight the fires,” she said.

Mill City Fire Chief Leland Ohrt shakes hands with Marion County Commissioner Danielle Bethell while being honored for his efforts and leadership during the Beachie Creek Fire of 2020 in a memorial ceremony on Sunday, Sept. 5, 2021. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

Laura Allran said she came with friends to honor, “all the many heroes of that night. I’m here to remember what we came through, and how we came out.”

The often-repeated language about a community coming together in crisis was reflected on a bronze plaque the North Santiam Chamber of Commerce unveiled. Instead of singling out a select few, it addressed, “each and every person who contributed to the wildfire recovery efforts” of the Santiam Canyon Wildfires of 2020. 

The plaque honored, it said, “those individuals whose efforts both big and small, reminded us that even though tragedy had come, it would not be here for long.”

A plaque honoring individuals who helped during the fires and in recovery efforts was unveiled during a memorial ceremony remembering the Beachie Creek Fire of 2020 in Mill City on Sunday, Sept. 5, 2021. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

Writer Helen Caswell can be reached at [email protected].

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