NORTH FORK, Ore. — Nothing could have fully prepared volunteer firefighters for the speed and ferocity of the blazes that roared through the Santiam Canyon on Labor Day and the days that followed.
Winds clocked at 115 mph on the mountain ridges above Elkhorn near the North Fork Santiam River caused the Beachie Creek Fire to swell by as much as 3 acres per second at one point.
Downed power lines sparked more than a dozen additional fires near homes, further complicating firefighting and evacuation efforts.
“It’s probably a once-in-a-lifetime event,” said Jack Carriger, fire chief of the Stayton Fire District and Gates Rural Fire Protection District.
While none of the fires reached into Stayton’s city limits the fire district also has stations in the nearby communities of Mehama and North Fork that were heavily damaged.
Gates, too, faced devastation as flames spread quickly, fanned by the intense easterly winds.
When it became apparent fire lines would not hold, Carriger said crews switched gears and began working with the Marion County Sheriff’s Office going door-to-door to evacuate residents.
“There were just too many fires moving too fast,” he said.
The fires destroyed 227 homes, 13 businesses and 324 outbuildings within the Stayton district, according to a state report. Another 160 homes, 14 businesses and 259 outbuildings burned down in the Gates district.
Five deaths were also reported up the North Fork Santiam River as residents struggled to get out of the heavily wooded area.
“It was a terrible loss for those who didn’t get out,” Carriger said. “It just leaves you feeling like there was something more you could have done.”
Carriger said his crews — most of them volunteers — performed admirably, working long hours under dangerous conditions to save as many lives as possible.
Of 10 volunteers with the Gates district, Carriger said four remained on the job even as their own homes were destroyed.
“Their response was incredible,” Carriger said. “The hours they worked, and the conditions they worked under, it was pretty amazing.”