SPECIAL REPORT: A night in hell – Santiam Canyon’s ordeal

Firefighters and citizens, trapped in Detroit by the fast-spreading wildfire in the early morning hours Tuesday, Sept. 8, gather at the Mongold state park. National Guard helicopters couldn’t get to them but they later escaped to the north. (Photo courtesy of Laura Harris)

After a day kayaking, retired teacher Scott Torgeson dropped into sleep Monday night in his mountain home on the North Fork Santiam River. 

To the east, Tara Stone settled into her family’s camper at the Detroit Lake State Recreation Area campground, listening to a quickening wind as her husband and son slept. 

And outside Mill City, Bonnie Sullivan turned in for the night after a telephone call with her husband, who was working as a carpenter in Australia. 

Far above them all, a wildfire they couldn’t see was gathering speed and power in ways that would soon transform their lives. 

The previously manageable Beachie Creek Fire was on the move on Labor Day 2020, propelled by high winds. The fire started three weeks earlier just south of the off-grid community Jawbone Flats, its cause unknown. 

Now pushed by gusts to 65 mph, the fire roared across the national forest, covering about 500 feet in a second. The world’s fastest runners would need 15 seconds to cover the same ground. 

The east winds pushed the fire into the canyons such as French Creek and Tumble Creek and the North Fork, geographic funnels that aimed the fire at the Santiam Canyon. 

Veteran firefighters, soon retreating for their own safety, had never seen such an explosive fire. What had covered about 700 acres by Labor Day would by the next morning burn over more than 130,000 acres. To the east, its twin fire, the Lionshead, would get on the move as well, racing down from the Cascade ridgeline into the Breitenbush drainage. 

On Monday, Sept. 7, the Beachie Creek Fire was about 700 acres. (Courtesy/Willamette National Forest)

The Beachie Creek, Lionshead and Riverside fires as of Sept. 15. (Courtesy/ Willamette National Forest)

By the time its extent was evident, the wildfire had killed at least four people, destroying homes and businesses up and down the Santiam Canyon. A mountain paradise that was home to thousands and beloved by thousands more campers, hikers and boaters was a smoking ruin. 

Along with other wildfires, more than 1 million acres of Oregon have been covered the past week by blazes. 

The 2020 fire season is now set to dwarf 2015, when 633,00 acres burned and state agencies warned fire seasons were becoming longer and more severe. A national climate assessment in 2018 forecast that ongoing impacts of climate change, leading to reduced snowpack and hotter, drier summers, would make once-exceptional wildfire seasons more typical 

Salem Reporter assembled this account of how the end of a holiday weekend turned into a midnight disaster through interviews with Santiam Canyon residents, firefighters, law enforcement officials, meteorologists, written accounts, government notices, and videos from those fleeing on Monday and Tuesday.  

‘Something like this was going to happen’  

Early Monday morning, meteorologist Scott Weishaar, assigned to the incident command crew on the Beachie Creek Fire, warned firefighters that warm temperatures, low humidity and strong winds were expected to combine to create heightened fire danger in the 767 acres on fire in the Opal Creek Wilderness. 

Fire officials anticipated what they called an “east wind event,” pushing the fire out of the high ridges and into the canyons. To prepare, the duty of dealing with the Beachie Creek Fire had days earlier had been turned over to Incident Management Team 13 – a skilled and well-resourced federal squad experienced in managing large wildfire. The team set up camp in Gates. 

The primary concern was for the homes and campgrounds strung along the North Fork Road, which branches off Highway 22 and leads to a network of Forest Service roads put in for logging and now used more often for camping and reaching the Opal Creek Wilderness. 

By 9 a.m. Monday, Marion County sheriff’s deputies were at doors in the community of Elkhorn, populated by retirees and vacationers. They warned of the fire and told residents to be ready to evacuate. 

In the forest to the north and east, the firefighters assigned to Incident Management Team 13 worked to clear remote roads of trees and other debris, opening the way for crews to later attack the expected move of the fire. Other crews cruised the North Fork drainage, noting homes and other structures and what it would take to save them. 

But safety of the crews was paramount. The day’s detailed plan noted that firefighters would be pulled out if sustained winds rose above 20 mph in the drainages of Cedar Creek, which pointed at Elkhorn, and French Creek, which led to Detroit. The forecast called for such winds to hit about 3 p.m. Monday. 

At that time, John Spencer, responsible for operations and planning for the fire, was in the field monitoring conditions. He was high up Opal Creek when, at five minutes after 3 p.m., the fire “stood up,” he later recalled. 

As the increased wind fed the blaze, he heard deep rumbling noises that sounded like passing trains, followed by a big column of black smoke as the fire ran across the forest canopy.   

“When the wind hit the fire itself, that’s when everything took off and started moving,” he said.  

The order went out to fire crews: Clear out. 

They returned to the fire camp, situated at the former Gates Elementary School, to wait out the coming storm. 

Bernie Pineda, an information officer on the fire team, looked out the window at the incident command post about 4 p.m. Monday, observing the weather shift from a light breeze to gusty and the sky turn darker. Hours later, that wind would trigger new trouble in Gates. 

Up the canyon, in Detroit, power went out at about 4 p.m. but those vacationers and residents still in town had no indication their community was in any imminent fire danger. 

By 6 p.m., a weather station to the south in the community of Jordan recorded winds gusting to nearly 30 mph. The Jordan monitor sits below the tree line, which means the wind it picks up is moderated by the forest. Above the canopy, meteorologists said the winds were far more intense. 

Off to the east, Joanie Schmidgall, a Forest Service employee, was on duty at the Coffin Mountain fire lookout, perched at 5,771 feet and normally with a sweeping view of the Mount Jefferson Wilderness. But on Labor Day, she and the seasonal fire employee with her could only see a foggy, smoky abyss in sustained winds. Through late afternoon, Schmidgall listened to developments on the radio as the Lionshead Fire that had started on the east side of the Cascades started burning west into the Willamette National Forest. 

Her plan to stay at the tower overnight was scrubbed when she was ordered off the mountain and directed to the Detroit Ranger Station, across the highway from the Detroit Lake state campground. Driving alone, Schmidgall worked her way downhill on a lacework of Forest Service roads before reaching Highway 22 and turning towards Detroit. 

Like the rest of Detroit, the ranger station was dark. Schmidgall found other employees hunkered inside, using headlamps to move around. 

She sensed it was going to be a bad storm. 

A map showing the communities in the Santiam Canyon. (Saphara Harrell/Salem Reporter)

No threat in Detroit 

At 7:48 p.m., Michelle Lane of Salem looked at a message coming in from Jim Trett, a retired firefighter from Keizer who is mayor of Detroit. Lane, a family nurse practitioner, and her husband Jason owned a second home in Detroit. Trett’s message said that the Breitenbush area, along a drainage north of Detroit, was being put on notice to be ready to evacuate. No notice was judged necessary at the time for Detroit, the message said. 

But just moments later, at about 8 p.m., unexpected trouble developed downriver in Gates. 

Pineda, part of the incident management team, was walking back to his tent to grab a flashlight when he heard the distinctive sound of a transformer ready to pop.  

He heard a loud hum, then saw orange light emanating from the transformer light up the sky 120 yards away from where firefighters were camping in a clump of tents behind a church. Gusts were ripping through the Santiam Canyon and the power lines in Gates fell, charged a metal fence and instantly set a fire.  

Firefighters went to work, unrolling hoses and trying to put out fires that were springing up around them in the town of 500.  

Pineda grabbed a Pulaski to make sure the firefighters ahead of him weren’t surprised by spot fires from behind, stomping small fires out with his boot while hearing relentless wind downing deciduous trees that were thundering to the ground in the distance. 

As more power lines fell, 12 new fires ignited. The fire camp – the headquarters for the effort to contain Beachie Creek – was now on fire itself. 

In Detroit 

Kevin Cameron, a Marion County commissioner, had returned to his darkened home in Detroit Monday evening after sharing homemade ice cream and peach cobbler with neighbors.  

At 9:24 p.m. he got a phone alert that the Breitenbush area, 11 miles to the northeast, was under a “go” evacuation order while communities north of Highway 22 from Gates to Detroit were told to be prepared to evacuate starting at noon Tuesday. 

Cameron, his fiancé and her daughter settled in to watch the Kevin Costner movie “Draft Day,” relying on their generator to power the house. 

Meantime, the Lionshead fire roared towards Breitenbush. The area includes campgrounds, a community of summer homes and Breitenbush Hot Springs Resort and Conference Center. The retreat is anchored by a lodge and provides guest cabins. 

Colby Neuman, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Portland, stayed up at home into Monday night and watched the advancing satellite footage of hot spots “in horror” as the fire spread rapidly.  

As the fire threat became apparent, volunteers with the Breitenbush Fire Department and sheriff’s deputies moved through the community, urging people to go. They escorted people down the North Fork Breitenbush River road to Highway 22, directing them east over Santiam Pass as the safest route. 

Working in the dark and without help, the volunteer firefighters tried to hold the fire at bay around the Breitenbush summer homes, then had to fall back to the resort itself. As conditions worsened, the firefighters realized they had to get out. 

Dan Dundon and Tim McDevitt volunteered to stay put, hoping to use the fire engine and water resources to protect the resort. They would be alone and out of touch until later Tuesday. 

Tim McDevitt and Daniel Dundon, on the left, stayed behind at Breitenbush Hot Springs overnight as fire burned around them. They were joined on Tuesday, Sept. 8, by Fire Chief Jordan Pollack. Capt. Neil Clasen and Erik Wennstrom of the Breitenbush Fire Department. (Breitenbush Fire Department photo)

Meantime, Michelle Lane and her husband left their Salem home for their Detroit cabin to retrieve personal items, anticipating a possible evacuation restriction the next day or so. They had no intention of getting into a fire zone. 

Traveling in two cars, they stayed in touch by phone, commenting on fire they saw as they passed through lower end of the Santiam Canyon. They dodged tree limbs littering the road. 

When they arrived at about 11 p.m., the town was dark and the air was smoky. No fire was visible. Sheriff’s deputies advised them to gather up their important items and check back in when they were leaving. For the Lanes, the conversation was striking because Detroit at the time was under no known threat. 

As they gathered their belongings, the situation in Gates grew dire. 

Firefighters had been unable to stop the fires triggered by downed power lines and spread by the winds coming downriver. 

Ken Cartwright had been in bed about 15 minutes when he woke to the sound of sirens. Cartwright is the news manager for the low power nonprofit radio station KYAC in Mill City that serves the territory from Sublimity to nearly Detroit. 

Cartwright left his home at about 10:15 p.m., making his way five miles to the station, where he went on the air to share what information he could get. 

A half hour after he left his home, firefighters yielded to the spreading fire in Gates, abandoning the effort to save the fire camp and the town and moving out along with others in the community. The fire would take homes on both sides of the highway, burn the lone motel in town and reduce the fire camp to ruins. 

Cartwright kept broadcasting as escapees streamed by heading west. He would stay on the air for nearly four hours. 

Evacuating Detroit 

By midnight, the Beachie Creek Fire was on the march down the French Creek drainage. 

At 1 a.m., the Marion County Sheriff’s Office issued an alert to immediately evacuate a stretch along Highway 22 from Big Cliff Dam, about 16 miles east of Gates, to Mehama, home of the beloved Gingerbread House. The North Fork Road territory also was to evacuate. 

In Detroit, Cameron, the county commissioner, hoped to alert his community to the need to leave, taking to Facebook: “evacuating Detroit now. We have a level 3 go!!!! Now 22 west is open for evac.” 

Cameron left in a convoy of three vehicles and looked up the hill to see flames, reminding him that it wasn’t a false alarm, that the fire was coming.  

It took him nearly an hour of white-knuckle driving to cover the 20 miles to Mill City.  

“I could not see. It was like being in fog and fire,” he said. “The smoke was just swirling.” 

The Lanes saw the 1 a.m. evacuation alert and thought it covered Detroit as well. They grabbed a few more items and were readying to leave when they heard loudspeakers in the community: “Get out now.” 

They tried. 

They started heading back to Salem and were just about to cross the bridge over the Breitenbush River on the west end of Detroit when they saw fire coming over the French Creek Ridge. 

“It was like hot lava,” Lane recalled. 

She slammed on her brakes, reversing course to check with firefighters in the center of Detroit. They told her to head east on Highway 22. 

At the state park, where about 70 of 385 campsites were occupied, the sirens blaring through Detroit caught the attention of Tara Stone. She looked out the window at her parents’ campsite. She thought the sirens were in response to an accident and wasn’t concerned.   

Stone had been coming to the state park for most of her life. When she checked in that afternoon for a week-long vacation with her extended family, the only danger park rangers warned her of was branches falling from trees.  

That afternoon, she went for a bike ride and took the dogs for a walk.   

“The fires are far enough away,” she recalled thinking. “We don’t have to worry.”  

But that night the sound of sirens got closer and then flashing lights filled the loop she was camped in. Next, she heard the voice of a firefighter yelling, “Level 3! Go now!”  

Stone woke her husband.  

“Honey, we gotta go,” she said.  

“What do you mean?” he said.  

“A firefighter just said, ‘It’s Level 3 evacuation; go now,’” she said.  

She could smell smoke and the campsite was blanketed with tree branches broken loose by the wind but still she didn’t think they were in danger. Her family loaded up and left the campground.  

Her family pulled into a “bad dream.” 

Flames licked the sides of the road as her husband drove the truck around fallen trees and power lines. Burning trees glowed red with embers. The truck windows turned hot. She wondered if the tires on the vehicle would pop. She also wondered: Where were her parents?  

Outside of Lyons, the highway turned into two lanes going west and all the vehicles rushed ahead, none heeding the speed limit. As soon as her family’s vehicle was within about 13 miles of Interstate 5, the fires were behind them. She finally felt safe.  She later made it back home to Sherwood, where she was reunited with her parents.

At the Detroit Ranger Station, Schmidgall, who had been sleeping on the floor, woke when the acting ranger at about 1 a.m. pounded on the door and told her to go.   

“It was so disorienting and so mind boggling because we thought we were miles to the fires,” she said. “The thought of it making it to Detroit was absolutely inconceivable.”  

The sky glowed red behind the ranger station as she started driving alone. She saw an active fire next to the Detroit Dam, the first time she really thought: This is scary and serious.   

The Beachie Creek Fire turned the sky red over Detroit. (Video courtesy of Laura Harris)

As she drove closer to Mill City, trees were torching and embers were flying across the road. Visibility was down to 20 feet and she was thinking about rocks rolling down the steep slopes adjacent to the highway. She had to intermittently stop because of emergency vehicles flying by to save houses. 

Around 3:20 a.m. the Marion County Sheriff’s Office told deputies in the canyon to fall back as the fire spread.  

“Conditions in the Santiam Canyon east of Mehama have become extremely dangerous and all residents who have not yet evacuated need to do so immediately,” the agency said in a Facebook post.  

Not everyone got out at the time. 

A dash for life 

On the North Fork Road, others were trying to escape as well. 

The Tofte family was at their home when the fire arrived. Angela Mosso was there with her 13-year-old son Wyatt and her 71-year-old mother Peggy. As fire rained embers on the home, Tofte told her son to run for his life with the family dog. She then tried to escape on foot, moving down North Fork Road. 

Upriver, Scott Torgeson, 72, was roused from his sleep by the sound of exploding propane tanks at a neighbor’s house. He hadn’t heard deputies earlier urging people to evacuate. 

Wearing a swimsuit and T-shirt, Torgeson started driving towards Highway 22 but struck a downed tree he couldn’t see in the smoke. With homes and trees burning on both sides of the road, Torgeson took off on foot. 

At about mile post 4, he encountered a badly injured woman who also was trying to walk out. She told Torgeson she couldn’t go on. It was Angela Mosso. 

Torgeson encountered Mosso’s husband, Chris Tofte, driving in to find his family. Torgeson told him about the woman alongside the road. 

Tofte found the woman and, according to a report in the Statesman Journal, didn’t recognize her at first as his wife because she was badly burned. He loaded her up in his truck, later stopped to get Torgeson, and made his way to the North Fork Road intersection with Highway 22. 

They waited there for ambulances, likely in the glow of the burning remnants of the Oregon Department of Forestry station at that intersection. State firefighters by 3 a.m. had given up trying to save the compound and evacuated. 

At around 4:30 a.m., Bonnie Sullivan stirred from her sleep in her home on the banks of the Santiam to the buzzing of her cell phone. She read the notice to evacuate. 

Sullivan, who runs a quilting business, was alone. She grabbed a few items and went to get her car out of the garage but couldn’t make the electric garage door open manually. 

Sullivan pulled on a backpack and a face mask and used the flashlight on her cell phone to walk out the driveway to the street and then to Highway 22. There wasn’t another person around. 

Across the river on the hillside, she spotted flames for the first time. 

Bonnie Sullivan snapped this view she had of the wildfire burning across the Santiam River from her home east of Mill City as she hiked out of her darkened home to a highway to be rescued on Tuesday, Sept. 8. (Photo courtesy of Bonnie Sullivan)

At the highway, one car passed her by when she tried to flag it down. Moments later, a man alone in another car stopped. His car was jammed with boxes and suitcases. He said he had no room for her but promised to send help. 

Then they hit on an idea. 

The man popped the trunk and Sullivan settled in on top of the boxes there, her feet dangling over the bumper. She held on with both hands, intending to get off in Mill City. 

The man didn’t stop and instead gathered speed as Sullivan saw one building after another on fire. He pulled in at the Gingerbread House at Mehama, leaving Sullivan in the care of police and taking off again. 

At the dam 

As fire spilled over the northern flank of Santiam Canyon, a shift operator at the Detroit Dam did what he could to manage operations there. 

At 5 a.m. Tuesday, Mike Pomeroy, alone on a regular overnight shift, shut off fans drawing air into the buildings because they were filling with smoke. 

He then tried to evacuate, but encountered an inferno of smoke, embers, deadfall, flames and debris along the highway. One of his tires went flat. With no other choice, he returned to Detroit Dam. 

By 6 a.m., he was reporting he couldn’t evacuate. He then lost contact as, at 6:24 a.m., the agency logged the development: “Phones/network down.” 

Pomeroy wasn’t the only one trapped in place by the fire. 

The highway east and west of Detroit had become impassable because of the fire, falling trees and rock slides. 

In town, volunteers with the Idanha-Detroit Rural Fire Protection District gathered about 30 campers, residents and others – some with small children – who had missed the evacuation and directed them to Mongold Day Use Area, a state park with a boat ramp and picnic area just west of the state campground. 

More trapped souls arrived, the number of firefighters and others growing to 70. They hunkered down in their vehicles away from the ash and wind while fire crews cleared brush to create a larger safe zone. They watched as the fire came closer. 

On Labor Day, the Beachie Creek Fire rapidly marched down Santiam Canyon. The fire cut off routes for firefighters as well as campers and residents who missed the evacuation call for Detroit. With the fire closing in, they hunkered down in Mongold state park. (Video courtesy of Laura Harris)

Fire leaders called for an air evacuation, and the National Guard tried around 8:30 a.m. that morning. 

“Unfortunately, we never did lay eyes on them and they couldn’t see us and they couldn’t land because it was just so windy there and so smokey,” said Lt. Laura Harris, one of the fire volunteers. 

The children grew scared. The fire crew handed out water, chips and nutrition bars to help calm everyone. After the air evacuation failed, firefighters prepared to form a wall with their engines to protect the people gathered there in case the fire closed in and there was no escape. 

During the day, Harris caught a nap in her truck. Firefighters kept people calm. They waited.  

Finally, that afternoon fire crew picked its way over Forest Service roads and down through the Breitenbush area to reach those stuck at Mongold. A convoy of sedans, trucks and other vehicles formed up to escape. 

Two elderly men climbed into a truck with Harris for the long, slow trip past burning forest on their way to Estacada.  

As they traveled, they got beyond flames and smoke disappeared. 

Blue sky ahead told them they were at last safe. 

A fire engine from the Idanha-Detroit Rural Fire Protection District was destroyed by fire that swept through Detroit. The Aurora Fire Department subsequently donated a fully-equipped replacement. (Photo courtesy of Laura Harris)

A fire engine from the Idanha-Detroit Rural Fire Protection District was destroyed by fire that swept through Detroit. The Aurora Fire Department subsequently donated a fully-equipped replacement. (Photo courtesy of Idanha-Detroit Rural Fire Protection District)


•Fire burned into Detroit after the evacuation, destroying 264 homes and at least 14 businesses, including the Cedars Restaurant, Kane’s Marina and the Detroit Lake Motel. 

•Three Breitenbush Fire Department firefighters made to the resort Tuesday afternoon to find their two colleagues safe and the lodge still standing. Many resort buildings, including guest cabins, and private homes in the community were gone. The five worked the next 2 ½ days to save what they could. 

•Scott Torgeson was subsequently admitted to Legacy Emanuel Medical Center in Portland for treatment of burns on 20% of his body. HIs wife, Vivienne, died six weeks ago of cancer. Torgeson taught at Clear Lake Elementary School in Keizer for about 30 years. His former students have joined in helping a GoFundMe account set up for their teacher. 

•Authorities found the bodies of Peggy Mosso and Wyatt Tofte inside a vehicle at the family home, the first confirmed fatalities from the Beachie Creek Fire. Two more victims have since been found but not yet identified. 

•Bonnie Sullivan made it from the Gingerbread House to her sister’s home and later was shown photos of her riverside home, destroyed by fire. She is still trying to learn the name of her rescuer to thank him. 

•Michelle and Jason Lane made it a few miles east of Detroit when they and others were stopped by a 3-foot diameter tree across the road. Fire had burned over the highway behind them. A man skilled with a chainsaw arrived about a half hour later and cut up the tree, repeating that several more times before those fleeing could make it through to Sisters. Michelle Lane doesn’t know the identity of the man but believes he possibly saved their lives. 

•Mike Pomeroy, the dam operator, sheltered at the dam for 30 hours and spent Tuesday night inside the structure as a fire burned around him. He finally made radio contact with his agency about 8 a.m. Wednesday. A crew rescued him and sent him home. 

•Detroit Lake State Park escaped damage; the trailers and tents left behind by fleeing campers were found intact when crews got back in. 

Bonnie Sullivan was alone at her home on the banks of the Santiam River just east of Mill City when she made her escape from the Beachie Creek Fire early on Tuesday, Sept. 8. (Photo courtesy of Bonnie Sullivan)

Nothing but ashes and metal is left of Bonnie Sullivan’s home on the banks of the Santiam River just east of Mill City. She escaped the wildfire by riding in an open car trunk. (Photo courtesy of Bonnie Sullivan)

Editor Les Zaitz contributed reporting to this report.

Contact reporter Jake Thomas at [email protected], reporter Saphara Harrell at [email protected] and reporter Rachel Alexander at [email protected].

NOTE: As a community service, Salem Reporter is providing free access to its stories related to the wildfires.