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Marion County Sheriff: Deputies will return to Santiam Canyon for search and rescue

Leaders in Marion County Wednesday offered a vivid account of the race to evacuate Santiam Canyon residents late Monday night as a fire raced through the canyon — and acknowledged that they don’t yet know if everyone made it out of the area alive.

Fire, weather and road conditions so far have made it impossible for the county sheriff to return to assess the damage to communities like Mill City and Detroit that were directly in the fire’s path. County commissioners said they hope that work will begin Wednesday.

“The fire priority is to get roads open so the sheriff’s department can get back in to assess and do rescue,” said Kevin Cameron, a Marion County commissioner and resident of Detroit. "It will be a miracle if there’s not loss of life here,” Cameron said.

Sheriff Joe Kast said his deputies had started evacuating people from the more remote parts of the area on Saturday, in anticipation of high wind in the forecast that would lead to dangerous fire behavior.

But Kast said his team was caught off guard when the fire blew up late Monday night and pushed rapidly into the Santiam Canyon. He said deputies put themselves in danger and tried to notify as many people living or recreating in remote parts of the canyon as they could, before they too had to flee the advancing fire.

With trees coming down onto Highway 22, some people were told to evacuate east, toward Bend, while others were sent west, through Mill City as it burned.

“A slew of people came back our side. A bunch of people made it out over the pass,” Kast said. “It was extremely risky and dangerous.”

Kast said he doesn’t have a firm timeline for when his deputies can begin search and rescue operations.

“We are hoping to be able to get up the canyon soon," he said. "We don’t know when we are going to be able to.”

The Forest Service estimates the fire is 132,450 acres and is 0% contained. Due to its rapid growth, there is no estimate of how many homes and businesses have been lost. A red flag warning for dry weather and winds is in effect through 10 p.m. Wednesday.

The fire’s incident command team reports that southeast winds in the forecast will likely continue to push the fire to the northwest. Fire activity is expected to reach Silver Falls City, Elk Prarie, Lyons and Fern Ridge, according to a report from the incident command team, and may reach Silverton Hills, High Hill and Fox Reservoir within the next 24 hours.

Marion County commissioners said they have been in touch with the White House, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, and Oregon’s senators regarding aid to the area. Neighboring counties have offered hotel rooms to house fire evacuees. Cameron thanked the Red Cross and other groups that are coordinating emergency shelter for displaced residents.

“Last night, before I shut my eyes late after hardly any sleep, people were on cots, people had hotel rooms, they had water. And they were safe, those who made it out,” he said.

Cameron described his own family’s harrowing experience fleeing Detroit by car late Monday night, as part of a small convoy of evacuees, dodging tree limbs as he drove west down Highway 22. In Mill City, the smoke and ash was so thick he couldn’t see the tail lights of the Oregon Department of Transportation vehicle guiding him.

“The fire on both sides was so hot I thought my car was going to melt, ” he said.

Cameron said the area that has been devastated by the fire has survived catastrophe before, from the collapse of logging due to the spotted owl to the drying up of Detroit lake. He vowed to help the area rebuild, with better infrastructure.

“I live there. I don’t know if my house is still standing,” he said. “But there is no way at all those places are going to be wiped off the map.”

The incident command center for the Santiam Fire topples onto the road near Gates, Ore., Sept. 9, 2020.
Bradley W. Parks /
The incident command center for the Santiam Fire topples onto the road near Gates, Ore., Sept. 9, 2020.

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