Santiam Fire: Reflections from Shelley Dougherty - Center Director, OPAHEC

Plane flying over forest with orange clouds

The rural communal areas and towns of the Santiam Canyon, including Jawbone Flats/Opal Creek, Breitenbush Hot Springs, Elkhorn, Idanha, Detroit, Gates, Mill City, Lyons and Mehama, along with the smaller farms and forested properties located outside the community boundaries were all impacted by the Santiam Complex fire. For many residents the fire came as a surprise with no warning. Our family woke to a thick black smoke enveloping our home, and the sights of a bright orange glow in the north east sky. As I stood looking at the scene, embers began flying into the pasture, some 1500 feet from our home.

It was time to leave. The events unfolded swiftly, forcing everyone at our home to leave with only the clothing on our backs. I know this is the same scenario faced by many other families in the area. As we drove away, I could see wind-driven embers being blown across the road toward our home in my rearview mirror.

That night and into the next day, the strong erratic north east winds created a patchwork of fires and multiple obstacles for fire crews. Later it was reported that thirteen separate fires burned on both sides of a river. Like many rural communities in Oregon, fire suppression and emergency services are made up almost entirely of volunteers. The small rural communities near each other share resources and help each other during an emergency. The notion of cooperation was complicated by high winds, physical barriers and the sheer number of fires.

Limited water supply created additional challenges; fire crews had to rely on the pump trucks pulling water from alternate sources, including the river and local private ponds, with few access points. The heroic efforts of community members and volunteers saved many structures including my home.  A couple of the young guys on volunteer fire crews have worked for us while they were in high school and knew we had a large accessible pond from which water could be pumped.  We believe that while they were using the pond, they sprayed down the front of our house, preventing it from burning. Water stains on the beams, and iron strapping brackets on the beams show evidence of superheating causing color changes and warping. We asked the crews we met during the mop up, but no one has admitted to being responsible for the deed, but we are grateful.

The cleanup and rebuilding efforts have begun!  I want to direct readers to www.traveloregon.com site, which has a page dedicated to highlighting the organized efforts currently working to help families rebuild in the region. The groups near and dearest to residents are the local groups that have come together to provide meals, clothing and supplies. The American Red Cross has provided assistance to families, Silverton Lions Club served meals for several weeks, and the Wolverine Kitchen -- an ad hoc group of past and present community members -- has created weekend food stops where impacted families can eat for free, and those which want to support the rebuilding effort can come together for a meal or make donations.  All monetary donations collected during the events are being sent to the Santiam Hospital Foundation, which has set up a fund to help rebuild the communities. A former canyon resident has created a clearinghouse of vetted contractors to help families with specific services. Volunteers are helping to connect the two groups together.

There are already signs of healing and renewal. Even in areas completely burned by the fire, ferns are pushing up new fiddle heads, trees have new buds and leaves.  I’m grateful to have a home to come back to and for the opportunity to work with the community, foresters and watershed conservationists to rebuild a healthy community and forest. It’s going to be a long time before it will be a lush forest again, and for families to settle back in, and it will likely be a different normal.