Labor Day weekend 2022 brought back eerie memories of 2020. The weather was hot, the humidity low and winds were strong.
We remember the horrific events from the Beachie Creek and Lionshead fires. Santiam Canyon towns were destroyed, five people lost their lives and 2,850 people received wildfire relief funds to aid their relocations.
The U.S. Forest Service (USFS) declared the Beachie Creek fire, which ignited on August 16, 2020, a full suppression fire. They had the world’s largest capacity firefighting helicopter parked at Gates airport within eyesight of the fire. However, USFS only authorized the Columbia Helicopter to douse flames for a few hours over three days. This was no one’s definition of a full suppression effort.
The USFS then dispatched the helicopter elsewhere without extinguishing the fire. A Columbia executive was enraged when he told me, “We could have turned the Beachie Creek fire into a mud hole in three days if they would have let us!”
The carnage should never have happened.
A month after Labor Day 2020, PacifiCorp Vice President Scott Bolton visited us at our office. One memorable comment he made was, “The Santiam Canyon wasn’t even on our radar screens.” It’s shocking considering the weather reports were predicting the conditions for the conflagration and the fire was burning. It’s doubly disturbing because of PacifiCorp’s fire experience and policy in California.
PacifiCorp is now defending 22 lawsuits. We are number 22 filed prior to the two-year statute of limitations.
However, money won’t bring back the lost lives, homes and memories. We can’t bring back our sustained yield harvest level for more than 40 years.
Two years after the Beachie Creek fire started the Statesman Journal’s front page described the Forest Service’s response to the Bobby Creek fire near Waldo Lake. “We’re using all the resources we have to get this one, it’s definitely a full suppression fire,” sticks in my mind. The story describes the helicopter and planes dropping water and personnel repelling in to fight the flames. We were told Beachie Creek was too dangerous to repel into. Retired USFS officials have told me otherwise.
Fast forward to Labor Day weekend 2022. The weather conditions and wind prediction brought smoke through the canyon from the Cedar Creek fires near Oakridge. PacifiCorp announced power would be shut off. Our company closed and all cutting, logging and trucking ceased on Friday, September 9. A pall of dread came over me, and I suspect the entire canyon had a similar feeling.
I awoke in the middle of the night smelling smoke throughout my home. My heart rate increased and my stomach went queasy. The memory of two years ago stays with me when I smell smoke. I remember not knowing if the mills were gone, and the highway remaining closed for two weeks. The memories won’t leave me for the rest of my days.
God bless the firefighters, the volunteers, and all who came to the aid of others. The good people of the Santiam Canyon didn’t deserve this, but their resilience is remarkable and is a testament to their fortitude. It’s a blessing to have such neighbors.
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