MILL CITY, Ore. — Todd Miller was not sure what he would find as he drove from his family’s ranch into Mill City the morning of Sept. 8.
The Beachie Creek Fire was racing out of control down the Santiam Canyon, forcing residents to flee their homes in a hurry. Amid the chaos, Miller, superintendent of the Santiam Canyon School District, heard rumors the blaze had destroyed the district’s newly constructed junior-senior high school, leaving him with a pit in his stomach.
“With everything already going on, there was heavy loss all around the community,” Miller said. “The thought of losing the schools, too, was a scary (feeling).”
Much to his relief, Miller saw through the thick smoke that both schools, including the K-5 elementary school, were still standing. For the next two weeks, he would come almost every day — sometimes twice a day — to check on the buildings.
“Seeing both of them there was a huge relief,” Miller said.
The Santiam Canyon School District serves about 600 students in Mill City, Gates, Detroit, Idanha, Marion Forks and along the Little North Fork Santiam River. Last year, voters in the district passed a $17.9 million bond to build a new junior-senior high school, which was supposed to open in 2020.
While the buildings sustained heavy smoke damage, Miller said they otherwise survived the firestorm.
Now, the schools will serve as a hub for recovery in the fire-ravaged communities, hosting emergency services, counseling and preparing meals for those who lost everything. Students will be distance-learning when school resumes Sept. 23.
Under Miller’s watch, the district is doing everything it can to provide assistance for families reeling from trauma.
“We face a lot of challenges right now,” he said. “It’s about trying to get people into stable situations, if we can help in any way.”