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Signs of life return in North Santiam Canyon
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Signs of life return in North Santiam Canyon

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GATES — Cheeseburgers sizzled and popped on hot griddles and the aroma of grilled onions wafted through the cool air at a makeshift food court at the Gates Community Church parking lot Friday.

Members of the Silverton Lions Club and Elks Lodge have prepared and served three meals per day there since Labor Day weekend wildfires ravaged much of the  Santiam Canyon.

“When we first started, we served 300 to 400 meals per day,” said Lions volunteer Jon Debo. “Now that Highway 22 has opened and people are getting back into their homes, it has slowed down.”

Debo said club and lodge members are joined daily by local volunteers.

“At first, we bought all of the supplies, but quickly businesses and individuals began donating food and it’s been that way ever since,” Debo said. “We accept monetary donations as well, but it’s not required.”

Jill Saari lives in Mill City. On Friday, she was picking up a load of boxed lunches for people who were working on a relative’s home in Gates.

Unlike six weeks ago, the air was clear of smoke and the sun was shining brightly in the canyon, but reminders of the tragedy that occurred here Labor Day evening and the following days are everywhere.

There are hundreds of car and truck carcasses left behind by the wind-driven fires. They sit on metal rims, devoid of tires, glass and upholstery.  Paint that was stripped by the blaze has been replaced by thin layers of rust.

Like an episode of the 1960s TV series “The Twilight Zone,” they remind all who pass by just how devastating wildfire can be when 60-mile-per-hour winds turn already scary blazes into uncontrollable infernos.

But life in the sparsely populated Santiam Canyon is slowly returning to its not-so-normal COVID-19 pandemic ways. Recent rains have turned grass bright green. Ferns and other plants are popping up in the charred forest lands. Although there are hundreds of homes and businesses in shambles, some property owners have stacked metal and other debris in neat piles, anticipating a time when they can rebuild their homes.

Highway 22 has reopened, providing a pathway to Central Oregon, and even though thousands of fire-killed trees on either side of the highway are now stacked in neat log piles, traffic was heavy.

Some of the travelers were getting their first chance to see the carnage.

Dusty and Linda Winicki live in Salem and were among the sightseers in Detroit.

“We have a friend whose truck was burned up,” Dusty Winicki said. “It’s over there in front of the Post Office.”

“It’s so sad,” Linda Winicki said. “We hope it recovers, but it is going to take a lot of time and these people are going to need a lot of support.”

The Mountain High grocery store is one of few buildings left standing in the Detroit business district, and residential properties that were unscathed are few and far between.

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Paul Filipenko of Aussie Builders in Salem had a crew preparing a home overlooking Detroit Lake for a rebuild.

Tyler Forshey was tearing the brick façade off the home as carpenters prepared a sill plate for trusses. The good news is that the homeowner also owns a masonry company.

“Trusses are coming next week,” Filipenko said. “The home has a cement block base, and that was covered with brick. The blocks are solid. We’ve had an engineer check out everything, and we are OK to build.”

Filipenko said he has worked on several projects over the years with the homeowner.

“They lost everything,” Filipenko said.

Idanha Deputy Fire Chief Damon Faust said the community’s 911 system should be fully operational on Saturday.

“We should be back to our regular coverage of motor vehicle accidents and 911 calls,” Faust said.

His home is still without running water, so Faust had come to the fire station to take a shower.

A trailer outside the station was being used as a community bulletin board, with messages written in dry-erase marker.

Faust said the department has two paid staff members and about 25 volunteers. Two volunteers lost their homes in the fires.

“There has been a tremendous outpouring of support from our fellow fire agencies and the public in general,” Faust said.

He said other fire departments have donated trucks, breathing gear and emergency supplies.

“We are compiling a list, but we know of at least 20 donors so far,” Faust said. “It is amazing.”

As of Friday, the Beachie Creek Fire that rolled into Mehama, Lyons, Mill City and Gates had burned 193,000 acres and was 80% contained.

The Lionshead Fire that started in Central Oregon and was driven west to Idanha and Detroit by high winds had consumed 204,000 acres and was just 46% contained.

Oregon property owners ready to begin rebuilding and recovering from this summer’s devastating wildfires now have a dedicated phone number, 541-225-5549, to call with questions about EPA’s removal of household hazardous waste at their property or to provide additional details about their property that will help speed the EPA removal work.

The hotline will offer service in both English and Spanish.

The removal of household hazardous waste is required before the property can be cleared of ash and debris. 

Property owners who have not already signed and completed a right of entry form with their county are encouraged to do so to help speed cleanup operations in their area. See the Oregon’s Wildfire Cleanup website for more information on the forms.

Contact Linn County reporter Alex Paul at 541-812-6114.

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