Afloat in a fire: Keizerites lead canyon boat retrieval

A multitude of people in the Salem-Keizer community chipped in to help save 250 boats after the Santiam Canyon wildfires destroyed a pair of marinas on the Detroit Lake (Submitted).

Last month, the Oregon wildfires caused catastrophic and unprecedented damage throughout the state.

Thousands of homes and businesses were destroyed and approximately 500,000 residents were under some level of evacuation orders. In some regions of the state, entire towns were wiped out.

However, through one of the worst tragedies in state history, there have been multiple examples of people coming together and serving their neighbors and community in a number of different ways.

One instance included a massive boat removal project on Detroit Lake, which was organized by Garrett Olson, a Marine Patrol Deputy with the Marion County Sheriff’s Department.

Olson, a 2007 grad of McNary High School, has been a full-time marine deputy for the last five years. He spends the majority of his 10-hour works days on the lakes of Marion County interacting with people and making sure that they are safe on the water.

However, Olson had never faced a challenge this daunting before.

Just days after the fires at Santiam Canyon tore through east Marion County, Olson got visual confirmation that both the Detroit Lake and Kane’s Marina were destroyed.

With a total of 250 boats at the marinas, Olson began to strategize how to get each boat out of the water and back in possession of the owners.

“A lot of people just lost their homes or cabins, and their boat was the only positive thing they had to come back to,” Olson said. “We knew that we needed to come up with a game plan.”

With the reservoir dropping around 12 inches per day on average in September, hundreds of boats being stuck in the reservoir would cause a huge environmental issue according to Olson — fuel and oil could leak into the water, which, if the toxins get far enough downstream, could negatively effect Keizer and Salem’s drinking water. Boats can also get carried down to the dam, which could cause blockage issues.

Olson worked with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and county leaders in an attempt to suppress the flow rate of the reservoir to keep the water levels as high as possible, which provided more time to get boats out and assess environmental impacts.

Olson then formulated a mass communication plan, with the help of Deputy Kayla Thompson, to reach out to hundreds of boat owners via email.

“Honestly, the hardest part was the emails and trying to get in communication with everyone,” Olson said.

Olson knew that a task of this magnitude would take lot of assistance, which is why he reached out to numerous people in the Salem-Keizer boating community to help.

“There were lots of people wanting to help and we all just merged into a super team, said Keizer resident Vince Castronovo, an avid boater who runs ‘Wake the World’ in Oregon — a nonprofit that provides water-sports opportunities to children in foster care.

Castronovo, along with Ryan Valentine from MV Detail, Dave Power from Dave Power Automotive and Marine, Dennis’ Boat Shop and the owners of Kane’s Marina and Detroit Lake Marina were called upon to arrange for extra trailers, storage and provide mechanical work to assist in the removal operation.

“This whole thing would have been impossible to accomplish without everyone’s help,” Olson said.

On Saturday Sept. 12, with water levels becoming drastically low at Detroit Lake Marina, Olson and his team were able to remove 30 boats from Detroit Lake Marina to the deep water docks at Kane’s Marina — which had safer water levels.

Because of the ongoing fires and heavy smoke, citizens weren’t allowed near the Detroit area for nearly two weeks. However, after fire and water levels were closely monitored to make the removal possible, it was determined safe enough for the crew to have a two-day window (Sept. 20-21) to displace 250 boats from Kane’s Marina.

Mongold Day Use Area Boat Ramp and Detroit Lake State Park Boat Ramp served as the access points for boat owners to retrieve their vessels. Owners were required to create groups of 15 at Highway 22 at Gates Hill Road, where they would be escorted to their boats by several Sheriff’s Officer vehicles. Once they got to the water, owners would hop aboard a pontoon boat and be given a ride to Kane’s Marina.

“We had to shuttle a lot of people,” Olson said.

Boat owners were additionally required to sign a waiver because, at the time, the Santiam Canyon was at a Level 3 (Go Now) evacuation level that was still prone to falling rocks and trees.

For owners that were unable to make the trip to the canyon on the designated dates, their boats were put into trailers and transported to multiple storage facilities.

“There were a bunch of heroes out there on those two days. We wanted to make sure that there was no boat left behind,” Castronovo said.

Some of the owners had their key fobs burn in the fire, but there were people on hand to hotwire boats and even replace ignitions.

“We ended up having a lot of boat issues with starters and dead batteries. The guys working in the docks all day, they were lifesavers,” Olson said.

On the evening on Sept. 21, the goal was accomplished. All 250 boats were taken out of the water and either returned to the owner or properly stored for the owner to pick up at a later date.

“This massive undertaking could not have been possible without the collaboration between the Oregon Department of Transportation, Marion County Sheriff’s Office Search and Rescue, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Bureau of Land Management Law Enforcement, Clackamas County Sheriff’s Office Marine Patrol, Linn County Sheriff’s Office Marine Patrol, Polk County Sheriff’s Office Search and Rescue, Oregon Army National Guard, and a number of citizens who volunteered their time to make this happen,” the Marion County Sheriff’s Office said in a Facebook post.

Olson was thanked profusely by many of the owners. He was humbled by the praise and appreciative of all the people who pitched in to make the project successful.

“It was heartwarming to have so many people that cared enough to help with this process,” Olson said. “The (Santiam) Canyon is a special place with special people.”