Marion County Sheriff Joe Kast updates the community on the first fatalities from the Santiam Canyon wildfire on Sept. 9, 2020 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)
Marion County Sheriff Joe Kast on Wednesday confirmed two deaths related to the Santiam Fire that’s devastated the area and is currently burning east of Stayton.
Speaking at a press conference Wednesday afternoon, Kast said that the victims of the fire were found by a search and rescue team earlier in the day. He said that the team commandeered a front loader to clear a road east of Mehama and found the victims in a vehicle.
“We also fear that this is not going to be the only folks we find deceased up there,” he said.
He did not identify the victims or their ages and said that additional details would be forthcoming.
Earlier in the afternoon, posts on social media confirmed the death of a 12-year-old boy who attempted to flee the fire and his grandmother. There was no immediate information on whether the two deaths were those cited by Kast.
Enchanted Forest, the amusement park south of Salem, posted to its Facebook page that the body of Wyatt Tofte, the great great-grandson of found Roger Tofte, had been found a short while earlier. The post also said that his grandmother Peggy Mosso “was also taken.”
Relatives had described on social media posts how the 12-year-old fled from a home on North Fork Road as fire encroached, which leads to the Opal Creek Wilderness. The accounts said his mother tried to help his grandmother escape and was severely burned in the effort. The mother is hospitalized in Portland, the relatives’ posts indicated.
The fire, which started Aug. 16 high in the Cascades, has ravaged communities in the Santiam Canyon since Monday. Overnight Tuesday, the Beachie Creek and Lionshead fires merged to form the Santiam Fire.
Brian Gales, Northwest Incident Management Team 13 commander, said Wednesday that the Santiam Fire covers roughly 159,000 acres. He said that three hotshot crews have been assigned to the fire along with other personnel.
Stefan Myers, spokesman for the state fire marshal, said that the measurement was taken using infrared technology from a plane flown over the fire Tuesday night and has since grown. Speaking after the conference, he said that’s an increase from the 131,000 acres measured yesterday.
Bill Neckels, an operations chief with the state fire marshal’s office, said that crews are working along Oregon Highway 22 to reopen transportation routes, as well as in the Elkhorn Valley area. The highway has been closed from Stayton to the Santiam Junction.
Details on damages to homes, businesses and other property were not given during the conference because the effort is still focused on saving lives. But officials indicated that forthcoming news would be grim.
“As we start working our way back into these communities, we're going to see and continue to see a lot of devastation and loss of life,” Les Hallman, Northwest Incident Management Team 13 commander. “We are in a rescue mode right now. And what that means is our sole focus is life and safety.”
During the conference Myers offered two resources for the public to stay informed. They include a Facebook page on the Santiam Fire as well as a new number the public can call for information. The number is 541-583-0526.
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Contact reporter Jake Thomas at 503-575-1251 or [email protected] or @jakethomas2009.