GATES, Ore. — The knowledge that deputies from the Marion County Sheriff’s Office have built up about Oregon’s rugged Santiam Canyon proved critical as wildfires pushed by winds topping 100 mph raced through the area.
As fires spread rapidly the morning after Labor Day, deputies didn’t have time to consult maps or plan out the evacuation effort.
Their familiarity with the remote forest roads and the people who live along them allowed deputies to get residents out of harm’s way.
“They had to really hurry because it was getting bad pretty quickly,” said Anna Jefferson, a public information officer and sergeant with the sheriff’s office.
In one case, deputies woke a group of people who were sleeping at a camp that was directly in the wildfire’s path.
“They literally had minutes to get people out,” Jefferson said. “It was a pretty bad situation but they got everyone out safely.”
Several deputies later reported thinking they would die as they struggled to alert residents about the need to evacuate, she said.
“They were literally driving through fire,” Jefferson said. “There were fires on both sides of the road.”
Apart from knocking on doors and ringing doorbells, deputies used their vehicles’ lights, sirens and loudspeakers to make sure people woke up and responded to evacuation orders.
“They made as much noise as they could,” she said. “Everything happened very quickly.”
The sheriff’s office does not have an estimate of the number of people evacuated by the dozens of deputies involved in the effort, but the county had nine communities under Level 3 orders to “leave immediately,” while residents of four cities were ordered to prepare for evacuation at a moment’s notice.
While five people in Marion County died in the flames, the number of fatalities could have been much greater given the speed and size of the wildfires, Jefferson said.
“We’ve never really had anything like this,” she said. “You just never know. We’re glad there were not more.”
Evacuation efforts were complicated by the darkness from billowing clouds of smoke, which were so thick that they blocked the sun.
“It didn’t really matter what time it was, just because it was so smoky,” she said.
Once the immediate danger of wildfire receded with improved weather conditions, deputies continued patrolling the area to check on people who refused to evacuate and to discourage looting.
Though two men were arrested on charges of first degree theft, burglary and eluding police officers in the Detroit area, such problems were not widespread, she said.
Overall, the strong support that sheriff’s deputies received from other agencies and the public was a bright spot in an otherwise tragic situation, she said.
“It was really great to see people from the community and outside the community pouring in to help us,” Jefferson said. “It was amazing to see.”