DETROIT, Ore. — As flames from the Beachie Creek Fire raced through the Santiam Canyon toward Detroit Lake, Will Ewing and his team of volunteer firefighters had a decision to make.
Ewing, fire chief of the Idanha-Detroit Rural Fire Protection District, spent the afternoon of Labor Day rounding up “refugees” — campers, bicyclists and other passersby — who suddenly found themselves stranded in the midst of a raging inferno.
In all, Ewing and his volunteers collected 86 people and rushed them to safety at the Mongold Day Use Area, part of Detroit Lake State Park. Though they were prepared to shelter in place if necessary, Ewing knew he needed to evacuate everyone from the fire zone.
“It would have been a horrendous night,” Ewing said, reflecting on the thick smoke, fierce winds and ominous orange sky.
The main east-west road through the Santiam Canyon, Highway 22, was a no-go as downed trees and boulders blocked escape in both directions. An air evacuation was also impossible, since the combination of 70 mph winds and smoke prevented the National Guard from landing in the area.
That left one other option. A member of the incident command team battling the nearby Lionshead Fire knew an alternate route, driving along Forest Service roads that eventually led back to Highway 97 near Government Camp.
Firefighters organized a 35-vehicle convoy, driving 5 mph through 2 miles of fire, in what Ewing now refers to as the “Mongold Last Stand.”
He jokes today that the convoy was like a scene out of “Mad Max,” but given the level of destruction in the cities of Detroit and Idanha, he knows their actions likely saved lives.
“My team that was there at Mongold did a very good job keeping people (calm). It was a very good process,” he said. “I felt really good about getting them out, and I’m glad we did.”