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

After meeting with federal officials Tuesday about efforts to clean up the fire-ravaged Santiam Canyon, Marion County Sam Brentano was left with a disturbing message: Don’t think in days and weeks. Instead, think in months and years.

During a press briefing Wednesday morning, Marion County officials described some of the initial difficulties in rebuilding the Santiam Canyon as fire crews get a better handle on the Beachie Creek and Lionshead Fires. Putting everything back into place will take time, they said.

Hundreds of homes and other properties have been damaged or destroyed. Residents remain displaced and lodged in hotels. Roads in the canyon remain closed, preventing residents from checking on their property. Residents are returning to debris that can’t even be quickly hauled away because of potential toxins.

The Beachie Creek Fire is now 46% contained after wet weather as of Wednesday helped fire crews beat back the blaze that decimated communities throughout the Santiam Canyon overnight on Labor Day. Now, the county is turning to the aftermath.

Colm Willis, chair of the Marion County Board of Commissioners, said that as of Saturday, approximately 413 people throughout the Willamette Valley are in hotel room. He also cited numbers from the Oregon state fire marshal that 650 buildings were destroyed or experienced major damage and 1,230 structures were in the fire zone.

There are also the 163 animals displaced by the fire that are still at the Oregon State Fairgrounds, where volunteers are needed to help care for them.

Willis said that the county closed the community resource center at the fairgrounds as residents have begun returning to the canyon. The resource center is now at Gates Community Church at 40070 Gates School Rd.

“With people moving back into the canyon, we are in discussions with the state and FEMA about beginning the process of rebuilding,” he said. “And one of the first concerns is cleanup.”

Brentano cautioned residents who want to get into their property and begin quickly cleaning it up. He said that under the ash there could be contaminants, such as asbestos, petroleum products or lead.

Putting it in a truck and hauling it off won’t work and residents will need to have a certification that their debris contains no hazardous materials before it can be disposed of, he said. He further cautioned residents against illegal dumping, saying that violators would be prosecuted.

Brentano said that cleanup will be similar to other parts of the country that have faced similar disasters. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will first come in to remove hazardous materials, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will remove the debris, he said.

He said he hoped it wouldn’t take months and years to complete. He mentioned a county website that includes guidance for residents on returning to their homes and getting federal assistance. It also includes information on where to make donations to help with relief.

“I'm just going to ask people to wait,” he said.

Brian Nichols, Marion County public works director, recommended that property owners check an Oregon Department of Environmental Quality website for cleanup guidelines. The state is working with FEMA and the EPA on help with cleanup costs. He said that homeowners should follow regulations or they may lose eligibility for federal help clearing their property.

He said that Pacific Sanitation is the waste hauler for the canyon and residents should call the company at 503-428-6131 for more guidance.

On Wednesday, the Oregon Department of Transportation announced that Highway 22 would be closed indefinitely from Gates Hill Road at milepost 33 to the U.S. Highway 20 intersection at Santiam Junction.

Marion County Sheriff Joe Kast said that Elkhorn Valley residents want to check on their property but the portion of North Fork Road leading to the area as well as Dogwood, remains closed.

He said that if residents need to check that livestock or other animals in those areas are fed and cared for they should call 503-798-6823.

 Contact reporter Jake Thomas at 503-575-1251 or [email protected] or @jakethomas2009.

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.