Virginia Brockman talks on the phone in Aumsville after loading up valuable and sentimental possessions to go to Salem for safekeeping on Tuesday, September 8. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)
Uncommonly forceful winds sent wildfire raging through the Santiam Canyon Monday night, sending thousands of residents fleeing from the blaze that by Tuesday evening was just outside of Stayton.
Blustery conditions rarely seen this time of year brought gusts of wind charging through existing wildfires in the mountains east of Salem. The fires grew, spreading into the Santiam Canyon during the night. The main fire – now dubbed the Santiam Fire – had covered 130,000 acres in a matter of hours.
And there was no stopping the fire’s march out of the Cascades and into the Willamette Valley. Weather conditions overnight Tuesday were expected to push the fire into new territory, putting thousands more at risk from Mount Angel to Silverton to Aumsville.
“These fires will continue to be on the rampage,” said Mariana Ruiz-Temple, chief deputy state fire marshal.
By Tuesday morning, the sun in the Salem area was clouded out by billows of smoke surging westward out to the ocean. The result was an orange cast to the capital city.
Firefighter efforts to contain the Beachie Creek and Lionshead fires gave way through the night to a single purpose: Save lives.
Campers in nearby state parks were rousted early morning Tuesday and told to leave. Police and fire crews again and again announced dire evacuation warnings, working from one small community to the next along the scenic canyon.
The fire camp that had been based at Gates pulled up stakes and shifted to Salem. Residents were told to flee, some heading east over the Cascade summit but most making their way west to Salem, where a refugee shelter was opened at the Oregon State Fairgrounds.
The evacuations continued through the day Tuesday, but authorities had no information to share about casualties. Assessments of buildings burned or damaged would have to wait another day, although social media and eyewitness accounts revealed the fire’s toll on homes and on businesses such as the long-standing Gene’s Meat Market in Mehama and Kelly Lumber Sales up the canyon in Mill City.
And officials pulled off a dramatic rescue Tuesday afternoon, making their way to about 55 residents, loggers and firefighters who took up shelter overnight at Mongold State Park, a day use area near Detroit State Park. Among those trapped, state authorities said, were the fire chiefs of Idahna and Detroit. Fire closed off their escape route both to the east and the west. Fire crews escorted them out Tuesday afternoon, taking Forest Service roads north.
Meantime, the Oregon Department of Corrections reacted to the potential spread of the fire by evacuating 1,450 individuals from three Salem-area prisons to the Oregon State Penitentiary.
The wildfire in the Santiam Canyon stretched 55 miles from the crest of the Cascades into Willamette Valley, Doug Grafe, chief of fire protection at the Oregon Department of Forestry, said during a call with reporters Tuesday. The fire has now burned more than 200,000 acres and the extent of the damage it’s wreaked on homes and communities is unclear.
“We know our losses are going to be great,” said Gov. Kate Brown, speaking during the call.
She said the state was experiencing an “unprecedented and significant fire event” that is expected to continue spreading, putting “Oregonians’ lives at risk.”
More than 5,000 people had been evacuated from Detroit, Lyons, Mehama, Mill City, Gates, Idahana, the North Fork area and Brietenbush, ordered out by the Marion County Sheriff’s Office. Some shared harrowing tales on social media of their flight through the night, driving Oregon Highway 22 with trees and brush afire in places on both sides of the road. In one, a young girl asks her parents, “Are we going to be okay?”
An evacuation center opened at the Oregon State Fairgrounds, hosting both people and animals ranging from horses to ducks.
A Sept. 8 satellite photo shows smoke from wildfires being blown west out to the ocean. Salem and other cities were filled with smoke on Tuesday as a result of dry conditions coupled with an unusual pressure system. (Screen grab/National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)
The conditions that gave rise to the fire are rare, said Tyler Kranz, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service’s Portland office. He said that the strong winds are being caused by the combination of a low-pressure system west of the Cascades and a high-pressure system to the east that’s rarely seen this time of year.
The winds caused the Beachie Creek fire in the Opal Creek Wilderness Area to combine with the Lionshead fire on the Warm Springs Reservation.
A map from Tuesday, Sept. 8, showing the location of the Santiam and Lionshead fires that have ravaged Santiam Canyon. (U.S. Forest Service)
The gusts were forecast to reach 35 to 40 mph and the sustained winds will remain at 15 to 25 mph, he said. While the wind will die down Tuesday night, the next day is expected to see breezy weather, he said.
Salem and surrounding areas will continue to be clouded with smoke as long as winds continue blowing from the east, said Kranz. But on Thursday, onshore winds are expected to blow inland from the ocean, he said.
“When you have dry air with breezy weather it creates fire conditions,” he said.
Grafe said that the forecast isn’t helpful to firefighters. Smoke may clear out of the Willamette Valley on Wednesday but he said that a wind shifting to the south would “test” any containment lines. He said temperatures will warm through the week back into the 90s.
He said firefighters were continuing on the defensive, focusing on saving lives. Thursday would provide the first chance to change the strategy, he said.
“Thursday is our turning point to move on the offensive,” he said.
Ruiz-Temple said during the press call that the east winds downed power lines that apparently started additional fires in the Santiam Canyon.
She said everyone who lives in central and eastern Marion County should consider themselves under a Level 1 notice – to be aware of a possible evacuation. That notice affects thousands of people in the foothills of the Willamette Valley.
“We have not had the ability to get in and assess structures and other losses,” she said when asked about injuries or fatalities.
The Santiam Canyon, from south of Stayton to Idanha, has a population of nearly 9,000, according to Census data. The median age for residents is over 50. The area served as a hub for railroad and logging activities during the 1800s.
Overnight, the fire has changed the area.
Videos that emerged on social media on Tuesday show Mill City, the largest community in the north Santiam County, ablaze.
The fire also came close to Detroit Lake, a tourism draw during the summer.
Angie Lane, spokeswoman for the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center, said Tuesday that it wasn’t clear where the fire was expanding but its heat signals are being felt as far west as Stayton. The sheriff’s office is advising residents of Stayton, Sublimity and Aumsville to be ready to evacuate should the fire expand.
Virginia Brockman, who lives in Aumsville, spent her Tuesday preparing to evacuate with her husband and five cats. She went around her house “like a zombie,” packing up her valuables and taking them to a storage unit.
Everything she couldn’t replace she took photos of.
“It’s pretty nerve wracking to think you could lose everything in a heartbeat,” she said. “I don’t even know how to express myself to be honest.”
Aumsville was on a “be set” evacuation notice Tuesday evening and Brockman said she feels lucky that she had time to prepare instead of throwing her clothes in a bag with ten minutes notice.
Throughout the day she said she was constantly checking Facebook, wondering if the bar she works at in Monitor, outside Woodburn, would still be standing and worrying about how far the fire would spread.
The Lionshead was caused by lightning on Aug. 16 but the cause for the Beachie Creek fire haven’t been established, said Lane.
She said the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center has not confirmed the cause of the Beachie Creek fire, which also started Aug. 16. She said the center has received reports that downed power lines coupled with windy conditions were the cause, she said.
Meanwhile, the air was rated as “hazardous” Tuesday by the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality because of the wildfires.
Pollutants caused by the fires can cause burning eyes, runny noses or exacerbate heart, lung and other conditions. Cloth or medical masks won’t offer protection, but N95 masks that are tested for proper fit and worn correctly may, according to the department.
Lane said that aerial support to fight the fires will be used if the weather allows. But the heavy smoke and high winds make it difficult to fly a helicopter, she said. Like other factors, she said, “it just depends on the wind.”
Reporting contributed by Les Zaitz and Saphara Harrell.
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Contact reporter Jake Thomas at 503-575-1251 or [email protected] or @jakethomas2009.