Lucy Urness, 5, fishes from a raft on the North Santiam River between Fishermen’s Bend Recreation Site and Mehama-Lyons boat ramp on Sept. 5. (Photo: Zach Urness / Statesman Journal)
Three days before one of the worst disasters in Oregon history, I went fishing with my daughter and two friends on the North Santiam River beginning at Fishermen’s Bend Recreation Site.
Life reaches perfection when you’re running rapids and catching trout with a 5-year-old who rejoices in every nibble and bite — and becomes so excited upon catching a fish that she swings it from the water like a scaly weapon that nearly takes your head off.
The plan was to write about the North Santiam’s resident population of rainbow trout and how to catch them in autumn, when the sunshine is mellow, the leaves turn orange and water level rises as Detroit Reservoir dumps water to prepare for the rainy season.
We fished from my 16-foot raft, using flies and lures and nightcrawlers — whatever seemed to work. Fishing pal Mike Ferris rowed his wooden drift boat ahead of us and Larry pulled in the largest fish of the day from Santiam Canyon’s emerald stream.
It was a good day on the river — one of my favorites of the season.
A few weeks later, it has come to mean something more.
At around 3:30 a.m. on Sept. 8, on a smoky and chaotic morning, Mike called me after evacuating Mill City by driving through a tunnel of flames.
“The North Santiam is on fire,” he said.
Preparing for calamity
We knew something was going to happen that Labor Day evening. It just wasn’t clear what.
That weekend, on a perfect Saturday, I’d hiked into the Olallie Lakes Scenic Area to swim in a few of my favorite backcountry lakes. Then, I’d climbed a peak called Potato Butte that has a great view of Mount Jefferson. But it wasn’t Oregon’s second-tallest mountain that caught my attention.
From the top, I watched a gigantic mushroom cloud rise above the mountains, thousands of feet into the sky. It was the Lionshead Fire surging to life and throwing up a pyrocumulonimbus cloud. Up to that point, it had been a pretty mellow fire season.
That night I read terrifying weather reports calling for historic east winds that Monday evening, Labor Day, the likes of which Oregon had never seen so early in September. The National Weather Service labeled the fire danger “extremely critical,” which almost never happens. To quote one source, the event would basically be “a hurricane hitting a wildfire.”
In the moment, we didn’t really know what that meant. Oregon has had big wildfires in the past. I figured this might be a replay of the B&B Complex — the 2003 wildfire that torched Santiam Pass and the Mount Jefferson Wilderness but stayed mostly in the forest.
To prepare for what might happen, we sent photographers into the field that Monday, to Stahlman Peak above Detroit Lake and to Potato Hill above Santiam Pass. We thought we might photograph a big smoke cloud coming to life.
Something far worse happened.
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Instead of a cloud rising from the forest — and a traditional Oregon wildfire growing — a warm and eerie wind began blowing thick smoke into the valley. It felt almost sinister. I told our reporters to get home. Fast.
We started reporting evacuations rising in a few places, like Breitenbush and Elkhorn and Detroit.
Then the power went out at my house.
I didn’t know it at the time, but it would mark the beginning of one of the worst disasters in Oregon history.
The worst night in Oregon’s modern history
If you’ve been reading our coverage, you know what happened next.
Power lines came down at multiple places in the Santiam Canyon, igniting fires at 13 different locations from Detroit to Mill City. Fueled by hurricane-force winds, the firestorm swept down the canyon, burning everything in its path, according to fire crews.
Nobody was prepared. The fire was supposed to come from over the mountains, but instead, it began right inside communities.
“It jumped to level 3 almost immediately in some areas because of how rapidly the fire was spreading,” Marion County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Deputy Ethan Griffith told the Statesman Journal on Sept. 10. “It spread so rapidly that we couldn’t get to everybody door to door. We were literally getting ourselves out of there too.”
The stories we’ve written about that night boggle the mind. A former Keizer teacher, Scott Torgerson, sprinted 4 miles through flames on North Fork Road to escape after his car was stuck on downed trees. He has burns on 20 percent of his body.
Another man, Don Myron, survived by finding a perfect rock in the middle of the Little North Santiam River to spend the night. He used a plastic chair he’d found along the river as a shield from blowing embers as a wall of flames rose around him.
Don Myron, of Elkhorn, took these photos of the Beachie Creek Fire in the Little North Santiam Canyon the evening of Monday, Sept. 7, and morning of Tuesday, Sept. 8. He took them while sheltering along the Little North Fork. (Photo: Photos by Don Myron)
Don and Scott, of course, were the lucky ones. Both lost their homes, but they survived. Five people ended up being killed in the fires, including famed environmentalist George Atiyeh, who died just miles from the Opal Creek area he spent a lifetime working to protect.
I am thankful my story is less dramatic.
My power eventually came back on late Monday night and, after dozing off for a few hours, my colleague David Davis woke me up with a text message: The Santiam Canyon was on fire.
We started posting stories around 11 p.m. Highway 22 was closed. Level 3 evacuations came in for Detroit … Mill City … Lyons. And that’s when it occurred to me that I only live a few miles south of Lyons.
With the sky turning pink outside my door, my wife and I decided to evacuate our 3- and 5-year-old daughters; she drove them to Salem.
I stayed at our house and kept working, reporting on updates that came every few minutes and crazy video of people escaping on Highway 22. Time went fast. When I looked at the clock, it said 8 a.m., but it was still pitch-black outside.
My last call that morning was to a meteorologist at the National Weather Service, who indicated the winds would continue to push the fire. At that point, I decided it was time to get out as well. I loaded up the dog and ducks — yes, I have pet ducks — and started a drive I’ll always remember.
A gigantic cloud hovered above the Canyon, as if a black hole had opened just east of Salem. Ash rained down on my windsheld. I arrived at the home of Dave and Carey Anderson in East Salem — who I am thankful to — and just kept writing, updating and trying to explain what in the world was happening to a very nervous city and state.
The last three weeks have been a blur. But the fires eventually cooled with some blessed rain, allowing people to return and take stock.
Return to Fishermen’s Bend and the North Santiam River
The return to the Santiam Canyon has been tough.
Almost 500 people lost homes or cabins. So many buildings were lost in Gates and Detroit is looks as though it went through a war.
And although it’s not the most important thing, the network of parks along the North Santiam River — a key economic driver for the area — were all hit hard.
Russ Dilly, the Marion County Parks coordinator, who manages places like Packsaddle, Minto and Niagara, said they’ve been trying to find trees that are alive and so far it’s been “one or two or three per park.” It could take years for the parks and campgrounds to be rebuilt.
“A somber trip,” wrote my friend Cliff Priddy, who kayaked from Mill City to Mehama after access reopened. “The fire burned right down to the water’s edge on both sides of the river for much of the way. On the river, lots of those nice riverside homes are now nothing but foundations and chimneys.”
The North Santiam River between Mill City and Lyons-Mehama since it was burned by the Beachie Creek Fire. (Photo: Photo by David Pouliot)
But the river isn’t gone. Mill City Falls is still there, along with Lower Indian and Spencer’s Hole rapids.
The green will return. So will the people and homes in Detroit and Mill City, Gates and Lyons. But it’s going to take some time.
So for now, I’ll think about the last fishing trip on the North Santiam and better times, as the emerald river of the Santiam Canyon begins the healing process.
Zach Urness has been an outdoors reporter, photographer and videographer in Oregon for 12 years. To support his work, subscribe to the Statesman Journal. Urness can be reached at [email protected] or (503) 399-6801. Find him on Twitter at @ZachsORoutdoors.
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