Letters inside of a melted mailbox in Gates on Sunday, September 20. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

The north bank of the Santiam River one block from Gates City Hall was still smoking Sunday as families returned to town.

Gates was among the Santiam Canyon communities hit hard by the Beachie Creek Fire, which roared down the canyon in the early hours of Sept. 8. Marion County said it was safe for residents to return last week.

The damage was a patchwork, with homes relatively unscathed next door to lots with little more than charred wood and standing chimneys.

Gates City Hall appeared untouched, with a sign on the bulletin board out front advising residents that the first week of September is “home inventory preparedness week.”

Next door, Randy Hildebrandt took a chainsaw to a fallen tree on the property belonging to Ken Cartwright, his friend and the community radio station news manager. Their house burned to the ground.

Hildebrandt, who once worked for the U.S. Forest Service, said he had “never seen anything like” the fire that reduced hundreds of homes to rubble down the canyon. He worked with Tim Smith and Smith’s son, Jordan, to remove the debris from Cartwright’s yard.

“We’re helping out anybody and everybody we can,” Hildebrandt said.

-Rachel Alexander

Fresh flowers sit on top of a burned car in Gates on Sunday, September 20. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

A crew removes damaged trees outside of Mill City on Sunday, September 20. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

Burned papers inside the U.S. Post Office in Gates on Sunday, September 20. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

Pastor Mike Stair, of Gates Community Church of Christ, prepares for a service on Sunday, September 20. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

Tim Smith and son Jordan work on a chainsaw while cutting down damaged trees on the property of Ken Cartwright in Gates on Sunday, September 20. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

Randy Hildebrant works on cutting down damaged trees on the property of Ken Cartwright in Gates on Sunday, September 20. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

Jordan Smith, of Mill City, prepares a chainsaw for cutting down damaged trees on the property of Ken Cartwright in Gates on Sunday, September 20. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

A lawn decoration and teapot sit in front of a burned down home in Gates on Sunday, September 20. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

A sign along Highway 22 thanks firefighters on Sunday, September 20. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

Partially melted marbles sit in ash in the remains of a burned down home in Gates on Sunday, September 20. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

Melted aluminum next to a burned vehicle in Gates on Sunday, September 20. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

A coffee mug rests in the ashes of a home owned by Ken Cartwright in Gates on Sunday, September 20. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

A utility box on the wall of a burned home in Gates on Sunday, September 20. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

The burned remains of Greenhouses by Chad in Gates along Highway 22 on Sunday, September 20. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

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Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.