A volunteer directs traffic at the Oregon State Fairgrounds on Tuesday, September 8. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)
Allison Hargett was on a family camping trip at Detroit State Park over the Labor Day weekend when friends, anxious about increasing winds and smoke, decided to head home.
Not long afterward, just before midnight Monday, the friends called to alert the Hargetts that wildfire was burning right along the only highway from the park back to Salem.
Up above Detroit and out of sight, wildfires were marching down out of the Cascade mountains, pushed by those winds.
Heeding the call from their friends Hargett, her husband and their 6-year-old daughter packed up to leave. They worried the roads might get blocked.
The couple hitched their boat to their Dodge Durango and headed out on Highway 22 toward Mill City, leaving the tent behind. Then they realized they wouldn’t have enough gas to get home.
They found themselves part of an exodus that lasted through the night, as wildfires prompted first warnings and then insistent orders from police to evacuate.
At 10 p.m., sheriff’s deputies had advised people in the Breitenbush Hot Springs and the Devil’s Creek community to evacuate. Two hours later, the entire canyon was under orders to clear out. Thousands of weekend campers and area residents grabbed what they could, fleeing the advancing flames.
For the Hargetts, their escape stalled when they ran out of gas. Friends picked them up and the group threaded flames on both sides of the highway, dodging debris.
Hargett said the fires were so hot she could feel the heat through the car on her face.
“The speed of this fire was just unreal,” Hargett said.
Hargett tried to keep from panicking.
“We were all just trying to be positive,” she said. “Our adrenaline was pumping so much that we didn’t think of how scary it was.”
Thousands of families living in the Santiam Canyon were displaced overnight as the fire swept through the canyon, with many taking refuge at the Oregon State Fairgrounds in Salem. The canyon’s population is about 8,800 people, according to Census data.
By 4 p.m. Tuesday, over 600 families had sought help from the Red Cross at the fairgrounds, said Dale Kunce, Red Cross Cascades CEO.
Normally, the relief organization would set up shelters in school gyms and other large facilities for people to sleep. But because of the coronavirus pandemic, Kunce said they were instead trying to find hotels and other accommodations for people to preserve social distancing.
Kunce said families would receive a call once the Red Cross had secured accommodations. If not enough hotels and motels were available, he said shelter would be established using Covid disaster preparedness guidelines the organization has developed.
“We’ve been preparing for this for months,” Kunce said.
At the fairgrounds Tuesday, Red Cross volunteers gathered information about each family and passed out water, coffee, snacks and masks to those turning into the parking lot on the west side of 17th Street.
Inside the exhibition hall, families sat at tables, eating snacks, charging phones and resting.
Eleanor Berry, who lives with her husband on Highway 22 between Mill City and Stayton, said they were awakened around 2:30 a.m. by an emergency alert on their phones telling them to evacuate immediately.
Berry said she doesn’t recall receiving a stage two evacuation notice to get ready.
“It went from nothing to stage three,” she said.
She and her husband packed their essentials and opened two pastures for their three alpacas so they could leave the barn.
Berry and her husband left home around 4 a.m. and drove to the fairgrounds before heading to a friend’s house to stay.
“Things were kind of a blur,” she said.
Around 2:30 p.m., Berry got an update from a neighbor who’d been able to check on the property. The alpacas were safe. But their house, shop and barn had all burned to the ground.
“Having the pasture access for them was what saved them. The fire apparently burned right around them,” Berry said.
She said it’s clear they’re far from the only families facing a devastating loss. When she called her insurance agent Tuesday, there was already an automatic menu option for damage related to the Santiam Canyon wildfires.
“We are really glad our animals are safe. To think we had abandoned them to a terrible death would have been very, very, very hard to live with. Now we have to figure out how to reinvent our life,” Berry said.
Heidi Northern, left, and grandson Freddy Avila, feed the family's pet ducks at the Oregon State Fairgrounds after evacuating Silverton due to wildfire risk on Tuesday, Sept. 8 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)
As a smoke-filled sky turned to dark around 5 p.m. Tuesday, other animal owners were unloading livestock at the fairgrounds or returning to feed rabbits and turkeys.
Livestock and farm animals are being housed at the fairgrounds, though space for about 300 horses and cattle was nearly full by evening, said Tami Goettsch, director of community services for Marion County.
Volunteers were constructing smaller pens in the Forster Livestock Pavilion for goats, rabbits, turkeys and other small animals.
Polk and Yamhill county fairgrounds both had space remaining for larger animals, Goettsch said.
The Willamette Humane Society is preparing to take in dogs and cats, though their focus will be on animals separated from their owners while evacuating, spokeswoman Callie Gisler said. The Oregon Humane Society took 20 adult cats from the Salem shelter Tuesday to free up space.
She encouraged evacuees to remain with their pets if at all possible, and Salem area residents who find stray dogs or cats to care for them at home if they’re able, while notifying the Humane Society so they can be reunited with owners. Anyone seeking a lost pet or trying to find an owner for a displaced pet should call the Humane Society at 503-585-5900.
Heidi Northern entered the livestock pavilion with her husband and grandson to feed her 39-pound pet turkey, Butterball, and Jennio, a slightly smaller female turkey, as well as 13 pet ducks.
The family evacuated from Silverton earlier Tuesday afternoon. Silverton by Tuesday evening was on a Level 2 notice, meaning families should prepare to leave at a moment’s notice. But Northern said after her power went out and the air quality kept worsening, she wanted to be somewhere where it was easier to monitor the situation.
“I wasn’t leaving my babies,” she said of the ducks and turkeys. She and her grandson fed the animals as Butterball and Jennio pecked at each other in their cage.
Inside the horse barn at the fairgrounds, three evacuees sat on overturned five-gallon buckets, resting after making sure their horses and goats were fed.
Tatiana Baghdanov, a search and rescue volunteer, said she was helping evacuate other areas near the fires when her own family got the order to move from their home near Stayton.
Her two horses, Acorn and Bo, were in stalls next to each other. The family planned to sleep in their car in the parking lot after showering at a friend’s house in Woodburn.
“They’re been surprisingly calm,” she said of the horses. “We’re happy this place is open.”
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Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.