Michael Chauran hugs Tasha Mack, whose family owns the property that Chauran and his wife live on and that was burned in the fires, on Wednesday, September 9. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

Michael Chauran and his wife Lori drove up to their Mehama home Wednesday to find it razed to the ground, the historic chicken hatchery gone along with it.

Their steers made it without injury, Chauran said, but Lori had to bury their badly hurt cat.

The couple were seeing what many others were seeing on Wednesday – the wreckage wrought when the Beachie Creek Fire erupted Monday, driving thousands overnight from the Santiam Canyon.

Their nearby neighbors’ homes weren’t burned, similar to the pattern homeowners found as they assessed damage for the first time Wednesday.

“It’s like the luck of the draw, I guess. Flip a coin,” Chauran said.

Hundreds drove into the Santiam Canyon throughout the day, returning roughly 36 hours since evacuation orders sent them fleeing in the middle of the night. 

Oregon Highway 22 is closed from Stayton to Santiam Junction and officials don’t want residents driving up to the canyon because of fire danger and hazard trees. Officials were making plans to tighten road blocks because search-and-rescue missions were complicated by people going back into the fire area.

The communities of Gates and Detroit were hit hardest, with apocalyptic scenes of melted motel signs and charred refrigerators. The air was thick with smoke and the sky turned shades of orange and yellow as sirens wailed in the distance. 

Tammy Sanchez looks over the remains of her neighbor's home in Gates on Wednesday, September 9. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

Tammy Sanchez and her husband drove to their home in Gates to find it unscathed. Across the street, their neighbor’s home was destroyed, the outlines of each room apparent in appliances burned to rubbish. Charred pumpkins and tomatoes were still hanging on the vine.

“My neighbor, he’s just going to have a total meltdown. He’s in his 70s and he lost everything he owns,” Sanchez said.

The couple said they left their home around 2:30 a.m. Tuesday as the fire approached around them. They stayed in Turner, and woke up to find it still dark at 9 a.m.

“I don’t know how to feel. It’s crazy,” she said.

A fire camp was set up near Gates Elementary School as a crew dressed in Nomex green pants and yellow shirts worked to move a large piece of debris out of the road.

David Rhodes and Ross Hofmann stopped their pickup truck put out a spot fire with the water in their cooler full of beer.

David Rhodes, of Lyons, and Ross Hofmann, of Aumsville, stop to put out a small roadside fire using the meltwater from a cooler of beer in Gates on Wednesday, September 9. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

The Oak Park Motel along Highway 22 in Gates saw each building burned, the sign melted and swaying in the wind.

Along the highway, deputies were directing traffic while fire trucks wailed by.

In Mill City, much of the business district was still intact and many residents felt lucky to come back to homes that were still standing. The bridge that runs through Mill City was wrapped in a protective covering, while the historic wooden walking bridge remained open.

Much of the destruction was visible from the highway, with blackened grass and small spot fires still burning. Downed trees posed a serious hazard and partially blocked some of the back roads.

The lumber yard in the historic timber town, Kelly Lumber Sales, was reduced to ash but the coffee shop next door was untouched.

Neighborhoods were nearly empty as drivers slowed to assess the damage, filming with their phones out the window.

A video shows the damage to the Oak Park Motel in Gates. (Saphara Harrell/Salem Reporter)

Further west in Mehama, Diane Pantovich, owner of the popular Gingerbread House, arrived Wednesday to find the restaurant that has been in her husband’s family since 1967 still standing, despite social media rumors otherwise.

“It was a relief but then you look around and see all the devastation. It was bittersweet,” she said.

The community in the Santiam Canyon is tight knit, with history going back generations. Pantovich’s husband used to work at the chicken hatchery and her Sunday school teacher used to live on the land.

“Everything just kind of hits home,” she said.

Early Tuesday, they were planning to wait out the fire, doing their best to save the restaurant.

“We were almost afraid to leave,” Pantovich said. But Marion County sheriff’s deputies knocked on their door around 2 a.m. Tuesday and told them to go.

Lori Chauran digs a grave for a cat the couple owned that had to be put down due to injuries from the fire on Wednesday, September 9. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

Up at the road at the chicken hatchery, the Chaurans said the property is going to take some cleanup and rejuvenation. But they expect the grass to come back next year and intend to rebuild in some fashion.

Across the street, their cow pasture was blackened.

“If you had a cow that was hooked on licorice they’d probably run right over there,” Chauran joked.

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Have a story tip? Contact reporter Saphara Harrell at 503-549-6250, [email protected] or @daisysaphara.

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