Reporter Saphara Harrell of Salem Reporter gathers information about the impact of the Beachie Creek Fire in Gates. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)
The accounts coming out of the Santiam Canyon flowed one on top of the other last week.
Remarkable escapes from the flames bearing down on small towns.
People trapped at Mongold.
Reports that home after home were going up in flames.
The scale of the fires was difficult to grasp. When fire officials said the Beachie Creek Fire had grown to 100,000 acres, that was hard to visualize.
At Salem Reporter, we decided pretty quickly last week that we had a duty to report deeply on this catastrophe.
The connections to Salem made this our disaster too.
Oregon Highway 22 is as familiar to most Salem residents as their local streets. The highway carries us up the river, into the woods, and to campgrounds scattered across the forest. It was our way to ski or fishing trips in central Oregon.
We developed favorite stopping points, grabbing a fresh burger from Poppa Al’s Famous Hamburgers, a scone and hot coffee from Rosie’s Mountain Coffee House, a platter-filling breakfast at the Cedars Restaurant and Lounge.
And there is the point that the North Santiam River is the source of Salem's drinking water.
So as the smoke spilled into Salem last week, the news team at Salem Reporter did what it could to meet the hunger for information.
Gathering facts during chaos is no easy task. Public officials rightly were more focused on saving lives than in issuing press releases.
The task was complicated by the blizzard of postings on social media. Some were invaluable. Those who fled shared their accounts, including startling photos and videos. But others shared rumors that took hold. One account after another, for instance, claimed Mill City had been leveled. That was nowhere near true.
The news team at Salem Reporter decided a key service to the community was to provide the best overall account of what happened that Monday night when the fires went on their rampage.
The result was our special report: “A night in hell – Santiam Canyon’s ordeal.”
To pull this together, reporters Jake Thomas, Saphara Harrell and Rachel Alexander interviewed people who had escaped, getting detailed recollections from people like Bonnie Sullivan, who rode out of the canyon sitting in the open trunk of a stranger’s car. Tara Stone described with care waking up in the state campground at Detroit Lake and fleeing with her family through embers and crashing limbs.
The team interviewed fire officials and law enforcement leaders. They poured over detailed maps to understand the geography of the canyon and where the fires went.
Above all, they focused on people, not bureaucracies.
That resulted in the scene of the firefighter stomping out flames with his boots and of a volunteer taking to the low-power radio station to advise canyon residents what to do and where to go.
Before publication, reporters went back to every source, part of our meticulous fact-checking practice. We double-checked details, names and times. We made sure those who shared their accounts with us felt we had fairly and accurately captured them.
The result was a story that was the among the most-read stories published by Salem Reporter in the two years since we launched.
Reader reaction told us we hit our goal of providing readers an understandable report on that night from hell. A sampling of reader notes:
“This put you into the experience that those who were evacuating experienced. Excellent job!”
“Heartbreaking, exceptional journalism.”
“Incredible account of the events. Sounded like a script from an action movie.”
“Amazing stories of deliverance.”
“This is hard to read. I cried through it all.”
For the reporters, such comments confirmed the value of putting in the long, hard hours such journalism requires.
For me, as editor and a founder of Salem Reporter, those comments underscored the appetite in our community for factual, in-depth reporting. While the debate rages across the country about whether people can trust the media, I find our readers do put their trust in us.
The crew followed up that report with yet another deeply reported story this week, “Road to Recovery.” With this, our intent is to give readers some sense of the scale of work ahead, that years of labor and millions of dollars will be needed. We also wanted to chronicle hopeful views, that some of those facing the recovery are ready to get to work, to seize opportunity from the ashes, to pioneer a better life for the Santiam Canyon.
All of this work was enhanced by the stunning photography of photojournalists Ron Cooper and Amanda Loman, who consistently deliver for our Salem readers some of the best news photography in Oregon.
We provided free access to these and other wildfire stories. We felt an obligation to move out important information to as many people as we could.
Now, we need your help.
The kind of work represented in these special reports costs money. Salem Reporter isn’t part of a corporate chain. We don’t have deep pockets. We live because readers support us with subscriptions and contributions. Just yesterday, an anonymous soul donated $500 to back our reporting. (Thank you, whoever you are!)
With your backing, Salem Reporter can grow as your local news source and provide even more of the local journalism that otherwise is fast disappearing.
Les Zaitz is editor of Salem Reporter. Contact him by email at [email protected]