STAYTON, Oregon — One week after fire first hit the town of Detroit, Mayor Jim Trett still has not been able to return to the lakeside Cascade Mountain community.
In briefings far from his home, he has been told by fire officials that there are still too many hot spots, too many trees and telephone poles at risk of toppling and too many unstable slopes that could set landslides loose across roads.
So he tries to piece together what has happened from photos and videos taken by firefighters, law enforcement officials and a few residents who managed to get past the checkpoints to reach the town of 210 year-round residents and some 1,300 people who reside there seasonally in second homes.
“From what I can see, 90% of the community is gone. Our post office is standing, part of a hotel and a storage unit building,” Trett said.
The slow pace of assessing the Detroit damage reflects the epic scale of the Oregon fires — largely driven by fierce east winds last week — that burned through more than 900,000 acres, destroying hundreds of homes and killing at least eight people, with local authorities expected to continue to report fatalities.
“Without question, our state has been pushed to its limits,” Oregon Gov. Kate Brown said Monday. “It’s really hard for all of us to wrap our heads around the devastation that these fires have caused and the pain and suffering that so many Oregonians have endured.”
Communities stick together
Evacuation orders have prompted tens of thousands of people to leave their homes.
As you drive through miles upon miles of rural roads in hill country close by the fire zones, the smoke hangs over the land like a thick, white blanket. One lone farmer could be spotted working in his field. But mostly, there is an eerie quiet.
And in some of the hardest-hit towns, such as Detroit, left with no power, no water or other basic services, authorities have sought to keep all residents from returning.
But in other, less-damaged parts of the evacuation zones, people have stayed behind.
Often, there is a visible sense of unease manifested in the signs put out in front of a few homes. They say: “You loot. We shoot.”
But in some areas along the Cascade flanks, a tight-knit sense of community has been forged by those who have joined together to battle the fire, keep an eye on neighbors’ property and take in animals.
“We are watching over four different houses and are looking after 11 sheep and a horse,” said Casey Owens, a logger who lives with his girlfriend, Nikole King, in the Santiam Canyon town of Gates, about 17 miles west of Detroit.
Owens and King left their RV at 1:30 a.m. last Tuesday as fire broke out on a recently clear-cut slope known as Potato Hill.
The fire quickly flared from 5 to 150 acres, and they fled to the west.
The couple soon learned that some Gates residents had stayed to try to defend as many homes as possible from the fire, so they returned less than 24 hours later to help.
Owens and King, interviewed Monday in a mall parking lot in Stayton where they had come to pick up groceries, said plenty of structures were lost in Gates but many of the homes in the town, which has a population of about 500, are still standing.
Owens estimates about 25% of residents have returned. He said that if they display identification that shows their addresses, they have been able to make their way through checkpoints staffed by Oregon National Guard troops. They can then buy groceries or run other errands in communities farther to the west and outside the fire zone.
While in Gates, Owens said he had ventured onto side roads to remove logs that blocked travel. He has been surprised to find that in some of the nearby forest, the fire laid low, clearing out ground fuels but leaving much of the canopy of trees intact.
“In some sense, it may have done some good,” Owens said.
Fire forecasts fail
In Detroit, which lies deeper in the fire zone, Mayor Trett said he is not aware of anyone who has been able to return to take up residence.
Detroit once had an economy largely tied to logging in the national forests, but in recent decades, as those timber harvests plummeted, the town became more reliant on recreation that included boating in the summer and snow sports in the winter.
Trett is a retired structural firefighter who moved to Detroit in 2009. He has long been concerned about the risks that a runaway blaze could pose to town, a vulnerable location at the outlet to three canyons that can all act as funnels for fire. To reduce that risk, the U.S. Forest Service in years past created a fuel break on edge of town, stripped of trees, which can act as a place for firefighters to take stand. But that did not help last week when firefighters could not be put into position, and winds caused embers to sail far ahead of the main blaze.
Detroit residents began to evacuate about midnight last Monday at the tail end of Labor Day weekend, and the escape route ended up being to the west on a harrowing route through active fires.
Trett had left Detroit earlier on Monday. He said the fire that later forced the evacuation ended up sparing most of the town. Then, on Wednesday, winds pushed another active wildfire toward Detroit, and most of it was lost.
“I just came from a briefing,” Trett said Monday. “They told me, ‘Every model we had said that what happened should not have happened.'”
Trett said that so far there are no reports of any deaths among Detroit residents, and he is hopeful for the future.
Utilities can be reconstructed. Some people will have insurance money to help them rebuild. Others will need financial assistance if they are to stay.
One of his priorities is to get back to Detroit for a look at what remains.
“I have been told absolutely nothing in terms of when that will be,” Trett said.