It was a somber meeting of the Marion County Board of Commissioners Wednesday, barely a day after devastating wildfires wiped out much of Santiam Canyon.
Right around midnight Monday and early Tuesday morning, public safety crews swept through canyon communities to evacuate the area. Detroit, Idanha, Mill City, Mehama, Lyons were all evacuated as weather conditions fanned wildfires throughout the region. Scotts Mills, Crooked Finger, Jakes Crossing and Breitenbush are among areas that were subsequently evacuated as fires trended in their direction.
Marion County Sheriff Joe Kast said Stayton, Sublimity, Aumsville, Silverton and Mount Angel remain on Level 2 alert, which means residents need to be prepared to evacuate.
"Our community is suffering right now, and our hearts are breaking for our friends and neighbors in the Santiam Canyon," Commissioner Colm Willis said. "These people aren't strangers to us; they are people that we know and love. I would ask that you keep all those affected by this terrible fire in your prayers."
All three commissioners hail from the Santiam region: Willis in Stayton; Sam Brentano, Sublimity; and Kevin Cameron, Detroit.
Cameron shared a vivid account of his evacuation, which came on more quickly than anyone had anticipated. A Level 2 alert was issued at 5 p.m. Monday, Sept. 7. Cameron said his family turned in around 10 p.m. and were awakened at midnight by sirens and directions to get out immediately.
He said initially the directives sent evacuees east — since there was fallen debris on westbound Highway 22 — and then, fallen debris to the east required people to head west.
Cameron described fire on both sides of the highway at Gates, traffic backups in Mill City and smoke so thick he could not see the vehicle in front of him, causing him to drive by focusing on the center line stripe.
"The fire on both sides was so hot, I thought my car was going to melt," Cameron said. "Even when the roads were clear after that, you could see embers just coming down bouncing on the road; sparks and fires everywhere."
All the while, public safety crews worked through perilous surroundings to ensure they could alert everyone they could.
Kast said deputies began notifying people in the Jefferson Wilderness area as early as Saturday, Sept. 5, as weather forecasts indicated potentially dangerous conditions. Wind gusts anticipated to for Tuesday arrived Monday evening.
"We needed to get people notified as much as we could and get them out of there," Kast said, adding that the fires elevated to the point where they "had to get the deputies out of there."
Cameron described scenarios unfolding with evacuees sleeping on cots in motel rooms, but with necessities and in safe surroundings.
"They were safe — the people who made it out," Cameron said. "There are some who didn't ... It will be a miracle if we don't have loss of life."
Kast said the Marion County Sheriff's Office is working with fire management personnel to determine when they can return to the area and assess damage and possible casualties. He added that it's difficult to assess the number of evacuees in part because people fled east and west.
One estimate on Wednesday cited roughly 5,000 people staying at the Oregon State Fairgrounds in Salem.
Cameron said he contacted other county commissioners and Gov. Kate Brown's office as the state of emergency due to wildfire was being issued. The commissioner has also been in contact with federal officials, surveying the long-term outcome.
"I called the governor on her personal line and said we just declared an emergency. The email is coming over for that. I just wanted to make sure you know what we're doing," Cameron said.
He also contacted Commissioner Casey Kulla in Yamhill County, Commissioner Craig Pope in Polk County and Commissioner Roger Nyquist in Linn County.
He said Pope responded within 15 minutes with information about motel room availability and getting the Polk County Fairgrounds ready for evacuated livestock and RVs. Kulla did the same. Nyquist was undergoing many of the same challenges, including dealing with an overcrowded fairgrounds.
Kast described the efforts that MCSO front lines made up the canyon as "heroic."
"We rode as many staff as we could get up there to get into the canyons up the north fork area, pretty much all the recreation areas," Kast said. "We had people driving up in areas that were very dangerous...but we needed to get people notified as much as we could to get them out of there."
Kast said he has also been contacted from other sheriffs statewide offering emergency assistance.
Brentano expressed gratitude for the various entities and people who offered help.
"I guess organizations are like people; you can tell who your friends are (in an emergency)," he said. "I hope that we are just as giving as people have been to us."
He specifically pointed to State and Polk County Fairgrounds, neighboring county officials, Volcano Stadium and City of Keizer, which made Keizer Rapids City Park available.
"And then the private people; you hear so many stories about people checking, people going up and getting livestock," Brentano said, fighting back tears. "Those...just really mean a lot."