It wasn’t like in the movies.
The wall of fire never came. Instead, it rained.
“When it came, it was quick,” Santiam Canyon School District Superintendent Todd Miller said. “It was almost like raining fire — it came down as thousands of little fires that grew in random places.”
Neighbors started pounding on doors, sweeping children from beds in the middle of the night and running for the car because no warning had come.
“The emergency evacuation notice did not work. We did not get the cell phone notification,” Miller said of his area, which was placed on Level 3 “go now” evacuation status as fires closed in, pushed by an unusual wind event on Labor Day.
The Beachie Creek and Lionshead fires were two of several major wildland blazes that threatened Oregon in some places and ravaged it in others over the course of a week in early September. In the Santiam Canyon, the wildfires destroyed homes, filled communities with flames and garnered at least one class-action lawsuit.
But as traumatic as the fires were, for the Santiam Canyon School District, the really hard work is just starting.
“We still don’t know where everyone is,” Miller said.
When the canyon communities of Gates, Detroit and Mill City burned, families fled wherever they could. According to a district survey sent out two weeks ago, some families are still in California, Montana and Washington. Others are wherever they could find stable shelter in Oregon.
At the time of the survey, 70% of district families knew for certain they had a home to return to, 18% knew there was nothing left and 12% were unsure. Travel to and from the area was still restricted in some places.
But even for those who know they can return to their homes, things will be drastically different.
Smoke damage is everywhere.
In a gymnasium that survived the flames, there are rows and rows of new desks — purchased with the help of bond money approved by the voters.
“If you run your finger across the desk, there’s an oily, ashy residue,” Miller said.
And it’s on everything.
The voice mail box on Miller’s cell phone is full. It’s not currently taking any more messages. He’s cleared it three times in the past two weeks.
He was able to get one message: the insurance claims for smoke damage have been denied.
“The cost could be millions,” he said.
There’s about 120,000 square feet of school buildings that need to be cleaned and repaired from the soot and ash.
In a district with about 600 kids, coming up with millions of dollars will be a stretch. The voters approved $17.9 million last spring to construct a new junior high and high school, add a cafeteria at the elementary school, create a new office, library, classrooms and an auxiliary gym and update security.
Luckily, the fires didn’t damage the new construction or the three existing schools, but the projects were delayed.
“We were set to open right about now, but we’re at least a month away now,” Miller said.
The wildfire didn’t just delay projects and rack up charges for smoke damage — they hit the district financially in other ways.
Schools are funded by property taxes, but they are also paid through a formula known as the average daily membership, or ADM. Each child in first through 12th grade is measured as 1 and kindergartners are measured as .5. Other students with special needs or in different categories could be weighted differently, but the idea is that schools received state funding based on the number of students enrolled.
Before the fire, Santiam Canyon served about 600 students. That number is now up in the air.
“I can assume we’re going to see a hit to our ADM,” Miller said.
Some families have not yet contacted the district, and while others could come back, they may not.
“The area already had housing shortages,” Miller said. “When you lose hundreds of homes in a district and there’s nothing to come back to, you have to assume families will have to find other options.”
The Oregon Department of Education has placed links on its website for schools impacted by the wildfires — a running tally shows that no districts are now under an evacuation order, but more than 1,000 public schools were impacted by the fires. The department also links to FEMA resources and other assistance information.
“We are working very hard in advocacy to get the state of Oregon and feds, through FEMA, to step up and get these buildings cleaned up,” Miller said.
School started Wednesday in the Santiam Canyon School District.
The plan, because of COVID-19 restrictions, was to have students learning through distance-education models that relied on internet connections.
That was before the fire.
On Wednesday, teachers began classes — some from their homes and others from the school gym or friends’ houses.
Those who have homes may not have power. They may not have water.
“Parts of Detroit just gained access within the last week,” Miller said. “There still isn’t free travel within our district.”
In some places, pace cars guide residents through to avoid the danger of trees on the road or dead trees, killed by the heat and flame but still standing, that could fall.
Reopening the schools, Miller said, was a difficult decision.
“We know families are on different recovery journeys,” he said. “A lot of kids in our district have now gone through a traumatic event. Some were sleeping in bed and put in a car and had to leave immediately because fire was all around them. Now some kids don’t have homes to return to. Some might have homes but they have no power or water or internet. Even our staff, they’ve lost homes.”
A class-action lawsuit has been filed against Pacific Power in Multnomah County Circuit Court. The suit alleges that the company failed to shut down its power lines as the wind event came sweeping through the state when dangerous wildfire conditions already existed.
But before the fires and before the lawsuit, it already had been a difficult year. Demands for racial justice saw Portland become the center of national attention and the site of protests for more than 100 nights and counting, and the COVID-19 pandemic continued to spread in the state and around the country, claiming more than 200,000 lives nationwide. On Thursday night, it reached the Oval Office with President Donald Trump’s diagnosis, signaling the continued march of crisis in 2020.
“This year, COVID and distance learning was already presenting a major challenge to our families,” Miller said. “This compounds it significantly.”
In the spring, the district knew it would need dozens of new internet hot spots if students were going to be learning online. After the fire, the number needed had quadrupled.
“It’s hard,” Miller said. “The challenge becomes, we’re worried about mental health with the isolation of COVID and with our students, when you can’t see them, it’s hard to tell who may need additional support or counseling.”
And while the district still hopes to bring younger students back under state COVID-19 metrics that would allow K-3 students in classrooms, there’s no timetable. Miller hopes it will be soon.
But for now, education is taking a back seat.
“For me, right now, making sure they get an education is secondary to making sure they have their basic needs taken care of,” Miller said.
Ways to help
Donations are being accepted at Santiam Hospital in Stayton for the wildfire relief fund. Those funds go to any resident in the area impacted by the fire.
The district is also collecting funds. According to Miller, checks can be made out directly to the district with “needy kids fund” written in the memo line.
Those funds are going to the kids.
“We’re using them to replace lost items that are kind of fun that families can’t replace right now,” Miller said. “Musical instruments, sports equipment, toys, anything that helps kids be kids right now.”
“We went through the emergency portion,” Miller said. “Now we’re entering into the difficult time for families of rebuilding and trying to get a sense of security, getting people the resources they need for their basic needs and coming together as a community.”