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‘I looked at Facebook and my town was on fire’: Oregonians tell of dramatic escape from wildfire that devastated their community

Heidi Mann had just been on the phone to her daughter and they made a plan.

If the fires they had learned about to the east got any closer to Mill City, she would jump in her car and head to her daughter’s house, 20 miles away. An hour later, logging onto Facebook in search of updates, she saw pictures showing the hills surrounding her community ablaze.

“I stepped outside and there was wind and ash, and people were starting to drive down the canyon to evacuate,” she said. They took 10 minutes to throw a few things in their car, and grabbed their neighbour. Then, the other side of the valley lit up. “I was like: ‘We’ve got to get out of here now – there’s fires all around us’.”

Ms Mann, 41, did make it, along with her partner, Miguel Garcia, her 18-year-old son, Saizer, and their six dogs. Not everybody did. When the Beachie Creek Fire swept down the Santiam Valley last, driven by strong winds and drought-dry conditions, several people lost their lives.

Many more lost homes and businesses were turned to piles of ash and twisted metal by the wildfire. Ms Mann’s home was among them. When they returned a couple of days later, there was nothing left.

Heidi Mann, her partner and son, fled to her daughter's home
Heidi Mann, her partner and son, fled to her daughter’s home(Courtesy Heidi Mann)

Ms Mann’s story is not uncommon: as many as 40,000 Oregonians have been forced to flee – 10 per cent of the state’s population – as a result of half-a-dozen major fires that have destroyed hundreds of thousands of acres. 

A little further away, in California and Washington, tens of thousands more are in emergency or temporary accommodation, as result of the fires that have turned much of the sky in the US West, from Mexico to the Canadian border, into a thick, toxic sludge.

People such as Ms Mann, now living in a hotel room, have also been cast into a controversy triggered by Donald Trump over whether the climate crisis, rather than poor forest management, is to blame. He has denied climate change. Ms Mann, who work in the timber industry, believes both are factors.

Caitlin Mercer and her husband Buddy Quarry also lost their home in Mill City to the fire that gathered pace on Labor Day. They had been warned of wind gusts and possible power outages. 

That night, the power did go out. But when they looked from their window they could see fire approaching. They did not even receive the emergency alert some others did.

All she had time to grab was a set of clothes and some treasured photographs – of their wedding, and their grandparents – and drove to a friend’s house. “Our house was burned to the ground. All we have is in the trunk of the car,” she said this week, on her way to the town of Newport for some “clean air”.

It is unclear how many homes were lost in their string of towns that dot the Santiam River, to the east of Salem. Communities such as Detroit are all but destroyed, according to some reports. 

Some such as Lyons escaped the flames. Then there are others, such as Mill City and Gates, where some properties were saved, by the remarkable efforts of firefighters, whose soot-smudged faces show up at petrol stations in need of more fuel, or happily accept a group meal donated by a grateful community, eaten almost on the run.

When The Independent visited Mill City and Gates this week, escorted by the Linn County Sheriff’s Department, a number of properties looked largely undamaged, but for the effects of the choking smoke. Yet, lots had been utterly destroyed.

The Gates Elementary School was a mess of blackened debris. Classrooms were destroyed, and metal twisted by the heat.

The school had been the staging point for the authorities when they evacuated last week, and among the equipment lost to the fires was some that belonged to the emergency services.

A short drive away, closer to the river, a field that had been turned black was still smouldering. The area had been a gated community. There was also part of it that had been occupied by homeless people. Officials are due to search that area with specially trained dogs, unclear if everyone made it out.

Even for those whose homes survived, it remains uncertain when they will be able to return. Mill City and Gates remain on Level 3 Evacuation order, meaning people need to leave.

Brenda Woodley-Thomas, whose home did survive, was waiting things out at a hotel in Salem. She and her husband had also grabbed just a handful of things before fleeing amid the flames and smoke and the traffic chaos triggered by so many fleeing for their lives. 

She said climate change may be a factor but that the issue of forest management – shorthand for a decades old debate between the timber industry and environmentalists that came to be known as “the Timber Wars” – was also important.

Heidi Mann says there is nothing left of her home(Courtesy of Heidi Mann)

One blessing for the town is that six mills that operate in the valley and reportedly provide much of its lifeblood were not harmed.

Everyone who fled Mill City or Gates or Lyons, or communities in the valley that night or in the early hours the following morning, spoke of the horror of waking to the news that they must evacuate, and then seeing the flames approaching.

The moment was captured by another Mill City resident, Kally Feagins, who posted an image showing a large, bright orange ball of flame almost covering the highway.

“The scene through our windshield the night we evacuated from Mill City,” wrote Ms Feagins, 31, who said this week her home had not been destroyed and who shared with The Independent the evacuation alerts she and her husband received. “Horrifying! Flames licked the passenger side of our van while I was driving.”

In the town of Lyons, Matthew Scott, 32, had just returned to his home, having been also forced to evacuate with his pregnant wife and daughter. He said he felt sad for the entire valley, which was already struggling before the fire stuck.

Mr Scott, who said he knew climate change was real and had witnessed it, said he believed at least 3,000 people had been forced to leave from their valley alone. It was 1am when he was alerted, first by a friend, and then by the police, who came knocking door-to-door.

“Get up and get out. And going through town it was chaos, it looked like a war zone,” he said. “I mean people were left and right, the fire trucks were trying to go, they’re filling up at the fire hydrants … It was like nothing I’ve ever seen.”

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