Sgt. Matt Wilkinson of the Marion County Sheriff's Office, stands in front of a map of the Beachie Creek Fire at the fire command at Chemeketa Community College on Thursday, Sept. 17. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)
Seven hours had passed since Sheriff’s Deputy Matt Wilkinson first laid eyes on a blaze that would consume most of the Santiam Canyon.
Over a police radio channel, Marion County sheriff’s deputies could hear change in Wilkinson’s voice.
In the early hours of Tuesday, Sept. 8, embers rained down, landing on Wilkinson’s patrol SUV, hitting the ground and exploding into fires five miles up a gravel road north of Mehama.
Wilkinson had driven to two houses on Wagner Road where he knew residents would have no way of escaping if they got trapped by the exploding Beachie Creek Fire.
No one was inside but as Wilkinson turned to leave, dime-sized embers fell on his SUV.
“We’ve got to get out,” Wilkinson thought as he ran for his patrol rig.
He got on his radio to let other deputies know the area was unsafe and fire was coming down on him.
“This might be it,” Wilkinson said to himself, considering his possible fate in the firestorm.
Wilkinson shared his account of that night in an interview with the Salem Reporter, one of scores of deputies, state troopers and firefighters who worked to clear thousands of people out of Santiam Canyon in the overnight hours on the last day of the Labor Day weekend.
Around 4 a.m., he drove down the gravel road as fast as he dared, but the visibility was down to just beyond the bumper of his car and he kept hitting 90-degree turns.
Fires were lighting all around him and he couldn’t see the fallen limbs in his path as he was driving.
Wilkinson’s started his shift the day before at 6 a.m. He is a search and rescue supervisor assigned to the Detroit area and knows the upper canyon well after working there for more than a decade. He was hired by the Marion County Sheriff’s Office in 2003 after working at the Mt. Angel Police Department for four years.
Later that morning after starting on patrol, he traveled 88 miles from Detroit to Madras for a 10 a.m. briefing on the Lionshead Fire that was burning near the Warm Springs Reservation.
At the briefing, assembled police and fire officials considered putting the Breitenbush area in a Level 2 “be set” evacuation and Wilkinson headed back to knock on doors and leave notices taped to the summer homes in the communities. The holiday weekend marked the end of the season for the summer cabins and many had already cleared out as Wilkinson made the rounds that afternoon.
He posted all the notices he could by 6 p.m. and then he drove to Highway 22 in Detroit to get cellphone service.
While driving down to Detroit, a limb fell onto the road and Wilkinson took a handsaw to the 18-inch branch and pulled it out of the way with a winch. Branches were cracking from the wind and falling as he worked, and he reminded others helping to watch out for more falling limbs.
When he got cell reception, he got word from the incident commander on the Lionshead Fire that the fire had expanded four miles in three hours. Everyone had to evacuate.
He returned to Breitenbush with four other vehicles, some with the sheriff’s office and others with the Forest Service, to get people out.
Firefighters called Breitenbush Hot Springs Retreat and Conference Center to tell employees and guests to leave.
Wilkinson turned his attention to a logging operation he knew a couple provided security for up Forest Road 4685.
He saw the wife in Detroit earlier. She wanted to get a motel, he said, but the husband didn’t want to leave while Level 2 warnings were in place.
When the deputy reached the logging site, the couple was gone so he started hitting all the campgrounds on the forest roads.
Forest roads course through the Breitenbush area like silly string, connecting to a series of trails in the shadow of Mount Jefferson.
He came across some campers who left a campfire burning while they slept in their tents at Breitenbush Campground, near the hot springs. He told them to go and took a gallon jug of water, put out the fire and moved on to notify the next group.
Wilkinson was also on the lookout for campers outside of formal campgrounds, aware that the region had seen its busiest season yet as people sought to escape months of isolation at home.
He worked through the road spurs thinking: I don’t want to miss anybody.
Pinching his fingers on his phone screen to zoom closer to a photo of the fire, it appeared the fire was coming down the south Breitenbush Gorge Trail, six miles away.
“So every corner I was waiting to see an embankment on fire because it’s so smoky you can’t see maybe 60 feet,” he said.
Working alone, he systematically checked each gravel side road, anywhere from a half mile to two miles long.
When he made it down the hill to the intersection of Breitenbush Road and Highway 22 around 9 p.m., he looked west and saw flames coming down French Creek, which leads to Detroit.
“And so this is my first time like: ‘Oh my gosh. Not only do we have Lionshead coming from the east, we have fire now coming from Beachie,’” Wilkinson said.
But then he was notified about a fire burning near Minto Park east of Gates and another a fire at the command post in Gates that had been used by firefighters assigned to the Beachie Creek Fire.
The sheriff’s office called in the SWAT team to get extra resources to clear the canyon. Crews from fire departments ranging from Woodburn to Jefferson responded along with patrol deputies from other sheriff’s offices.
Wilkerson listened to one deputy after another report in from differing locations that “I’ve got a fire here, I’ve got a fire here.”
Heavy debris was on the road and the wind was howling for the 17-mile drive downriver to Gates.
Before Wilkinson got into his SUV, he said the wind was so strong if he turned the wrong way ash would hit him in the face, similar to standing near a helicopter during takeoff.
When Wilkerson arrived in Gates, he drove through the community, blaring with his SUV’s loudspeaker, “Get out now. Get out now.”
Around midnight, Detroit would appear in imminent danger and deputies shifted their efforts there to get the city evacuated.
Wilkinson drove back to Detroit and began his process again: driving around, shouting into the loudspeaker for people to get out.
“As you’re doing the loud hails, people are already coming out with a handful of stuff to jump in their cars,” he said.
After that, the plan was for authorities to go door-to-door at any home where a vehicle was parked. He knew they were getting a good response when he saw the flow of cars coming out of Detroit.
A few people told Wilkinson they weren’t going to leave. He told them it was a terrible idea and there would be no rescuers returning if they needed help later.
The fire wasn’t to Detroit yet, but the highway to Gates was becoming impassable, and Wilkinson’s commander told him: “You’ve got 15 minutes to get everybody out of there.”
He couldn’t leave until everyone was out.
Give me 15 more, he said. It was 1:45 a.m. and the fire was marching closer to Detroit.
After 15 additional minutes he cleared out.
Wilkinson left Detroit and drove 30 miles to Mehama, dodging limbs, debris and rocks piling up on the road and then made his way up Wagner Road.
While recounting the story, Wilkinson paused and let out a heavy sigh, the weight of the event still apparent.
Around 6 a.m., 25 hours since he started his shift, Wilkinson debriefed at the sheriff’s substation in Stayton and finally went home.
He later said the fire was like “nothing I’ve seen ever in my life - Fire that can just roar and turn. It’s insane.,” he said.
News tip? Contact reporter Saphara Harrell by email at [email protected]
SUPPORT SALEM REPORTER'S JOURNALISM - A monthly subscription starts at $5. Go HERE. Or contribute to keep our reporters and photographers on duty. Go HERE. Checks can be sent: Salem Reporter, 2925 River Rd S #280 Salem OR 97302. Your support matters.