Commentary

Beachie Creek Fire – A Practitioner’s Firsthand Account

by Charles (Chuck) Perino

Click HERE for the Article Out Loud 

Emergency managers are resilient, clear-headed, serene, and strong – except when they are not…. The summer of 2020 was hot and dry in the Northwestern United States. Fire crews had been battling fires throughout Oregon for most of the summer. About 40 miles from home, the Beachie Creek Fire smoldered and grew slowly during the final weeks of August. The fire was spotted on August 16, 2020, in the Opal Creek Wilderness Area as it gradually became a blaze, likely caused by a lightning strike from a storm several weeks earlier. Due to the remote area of the fire, the U.S. Forest Service attacked the fire aggressively using helicopters and hot shot teams that hiked 4 hours over rugged terrain to reach the fire. Aircraft equipped to combat wildfires were unavailable at that time as crews across the region simultaneously fought fires at other locations.

“The fire is 40 miles away, so there is no need to worry. I am the expert, after all, so I went to bed ….”

Under a long-term management strategy to oversee its control, the fire did not grow beyond 15 acres until August 23 – seven days after it was initially spotted. After that day, it slowly grew until Labor Day Weekend but was still under the control of the incident management team. For most fires in the Northwest, this is the beginning of the end of the danger. However, Western Oregon was exceptionally dry. Following are the personal logs of an emergency manager during the wildfire evacuations in Oregon in 2020.

Labor Day Weekend, 2020

As the emergency manager of Albany, Oregon, some 70 miles from Beachie Creek, I forwarded the National Weather Service’s Critical Fire Weather Warning to the City Departments and Community Partners before leaving the office that Friday, September 4 (19 days after the fire was initially spotted). That summer, I distributed over a dozen weather warnings for heat and dry conditions to these departments and partners. This one seemed no different than any others passed along that summer. Personally, it was a great Labor Day holiday weekend. Sure, it was hot and dry, but some cool-water recreational paddleboarding with my son, barbequing with friends, and relaxing were welcome experiences that helped ease the stressors of the seemingly never-ending response to COVID-19. The National Weather Service issued an extreme fire weather warning for Sunday, September 6 (21 days after it was initially spotted), with low humidity and a rare, strong easterly wind.

September 7, 7:00 P.M. – “Dad, it sure is windy.”

After playing some basketball in the driveway, poorly on my part, my son and I eerily watched the backboard sway in the wind. The weed fabric I had failed to cover in bark mulch that summer flapped like a torn flag against a decorative rock on the walkway to the house. Being prepared, resilient, cautionary, and, let’s face it, paranoid, we laid the basketball hoop on the ground in the yard, so it would not blow over on the car – mitigation in action. The wind continued to blow as we went inside, and everyone tried to enjoy the last few hours of the long weekend with a delicious dinner and a movie. The previously manageable Beachie Creek fire grew exponentially as the hot, dry winds continued throughout the day. Oregonians who face fire every summer thought we understood the threat. Like others in the Santiam Canyon where we lived, my family was well outside the fire’s location, so we assumed this would not be a problem in the next seven hours.

September 7, 10:00 P.M. – “I’m worried.”

As I was getting ready for bed, my wife was concerned. She had been scouring Facebook all night and was getting reports of fire from her friends who lived further up the canyon (closer to Beachie Creek). There were no evacuation warnings yet, and not even notices to prepare for evacuation. Besides, the fire is 40 miles away, so there is no need to worry. I am the expert, after all, so I went to bed full of barbeque and beer and tired from days of recreation. What a great weekend! As the night progressed, easterly winds whipped through the Santiam River Canyon, with the fire spreading and overtaking small towns 30+ miles to the east of our home, such as Idanha, the recreational community of Detroit Lake, and Gates continuing westward and being funneled and concentrated by the canyon. As I slept, those communities evacuated hastily. Tragically, some people did not make it out at all.

September 8, 2:00 A.M. – “Get up. We are leaving NOW.”

My wife entered the bedroom, flipping the lights on and waking me up. She is the hero of this story. She continued to worry, monitor, and pack up essentials. When she woke me, she heard from the adjacent county that they were being evacuated. As we loaded the car, the sky was a hellish orange, and smoke kept us from seeing across the street. We heard neighbors packing and getting things together. We woke the kids and got the dogs loaded into the two vehicles.

September 8, 2:15 A.M. – “Where is the dang cat!?”

We ran through the house, grabbing what seemed necessary – food, water, toys for the kids, photos, computer, anything we could grab in 10 minutes. My son asked me where the cat was, “Dang, the cat!” Luckily and likely cashing in one of his lives, he was inside, so I grabbed the cat, put him in the box we turned into a carrier, and we were off. Looking at the house was hard, not knowing if we would return. We followed an endless line of taillights westward. Despite the chaos of that night, I was amazed at the efficiency of the evacuation. The volunteer firefighters, some dressed in shorts, sandals, and helmets, guided my neighbors onto the highway. I cannot imagine the stress they must have felt as their own families left that night. By this point, the fire had engulfed the town of Detroit and continued down the canyon. Mill City was mostly spared, but areas to the north of the city were devastated. The fire continued heading toward Lyons, now 10 or so miles away.

September 8, 2:55 A.M. – “Don’t worry, boys. I will see you guys soon. You are safe here.”

Friends, who lived about 20 miles from our town, opened their home to my wife, kids, and one dog that night. We all were already coughing and suffering from the smoke. I left them there and went to work. There wasn’t enough room at their house for another dog, a cat, and me. Plus, even though the City of Albany wasn’t affected by the fires, I knew there would be a lot of work to support the county’s response. I never actually asked my boss (the fire chief) if I could stay at the station. However, like it or not, Chief, I would live at Station 11 with the animals for almost eight days.

View from Albany at 10:00 a.m. on September 8, 2020, as the fire turned sky orange from 40 miles away (Source: Perino, 2020).

September 9-15 – “Have you guys heard anything?”

We stopped hearing the status of the fire and concrete information on our home after the evacuation during the ongoing effort to fight and slow the fires. My wife and kids were cared for wonderfully by our friends. My wife would get bits of information on our house and started to look at our insurance policy, just in case. All the time, half my brain was focused on my home, was it still standing? Tons of misinformation and rumors flowed during those chaotic days, fueled by people on social media. For example, misinformation on the fire destroying “landmarks” such as the Gingerbread House restaurant made us fear the worst. In addition, there was looting of evacuated homes, with dozens of thefts occurring in that period. One firefighter at our station’s house was looted three days after the evacuation. We, of course, feared the worse.

Albany had fire crews involved in the response since the night of the evacuation. On September 10, one of those crews drove by our house and sent me a picture. Our house was still there. My position afforded me peace of mind that my neighbors would not receive until days later. The homes in our neighborhood survived. Slowly, firefighting efforts were gaining control and reversing the gains of the fire, which came within a quarter mile of our home.

First photo confirmation from an Albany firefighter that the house was smoky but safe (Source: Perino, 2020).

Firefighters continued struggling with the fire. The winds had died down, but the heat and dryness continued. My days were filled with helping the Albany Fire Department support the county’s sheltering operations at the Linn County Fairgrounds. I worked with homeless shelters to support that population, keeping them healthy and safe from the oppressive smoke but also being careful of COVID-19 spreading through that community. Later, I helped the county with damage assessments. The dog never left my side. He was terrified. We both needed each other that week. I was happy to have him with me. The dang cat had no problem at all. In fact, he enjoyed his time at the fire station.

The dog “Diesel” wanted to share a cot at the fire station (Source: Perino, 2020).

September 15 – Home at last

The Beachie Creek Fire, driven by those devilish winds, ended up burning nearly 200,000 acres. Flames from the fire left five neighbors further up the canyon dead, took thousands of homes, businesses, and structures, and had a net economic impact of $5.9 billion. The communities of Detroit, Idanha, and Gates were largely destroyed and forever changed by that night. Scars remain on the landscape and in the Santiam Canyon residents’ hearts.

“Lost” sign found in the ruins of a burned home in the Santiam Canyon (Source: Perino, 2020).

Lessons Learned

The unexpected change in that massive Beachie Creek Fire provided many lessons learned for someone trained to respond to disaster who suddenly found himself fleeing from it. Since that night, we have kept our vital documents together and are ready to go at a moment’s notice. The State of Oregon, having learned from the evacuation and warning challenges, has enacted a statewide warning system to ensure that residents are aware of emergencies. We now ensure everyone is signed up (including on the kids’ phones, work phones, emails, etc.) to restore these truly lifesaving messages. Lastly, we now have a family plan, what we will do if we are separated the next time something like this occurs, a plan for where we will go, how we will communicate, and how we will reunite.

These primary lessons are not new, but they take on a new perspective when the disaster responder becomes the one impacted by the disaster:

  • The control, management, and coordination of an incident are fragile. Being personally affected by an event makes even an experienced emergency planner, manager, or responder much less capable than if their family were not at the center of the disaster. Understand that being impacted by the disaster will affect work performance, and that is okay. Fortunately, in this case, my job and department only served in a support role to the county. Be aware that personal concern over the family’s well-being will preoccupy thoughts and affect actions. Have a solid supporting cast, robust partnerships, and good people to lean on.
  • Information is the primary need of people impacted in this situation – some acknowledgment that they are paying a considerable price and are in an awful time and place. Take a moment to acknowledge that, ensure they know the response’s status, and let them know what is happening in the event. They seek leadership and hope, even if the news is terrible for their neighborhoods.
  • Linn County could stand up, manage, and handle evacuees, pets, and farm animals in this disaster. The staff put together an effective ad-hoc response in a short time. Look at jurisdictional plans for evacuation and sheltering, get to know them, spread the word to neighbors, and be ready to help.
  • Like many other communities hit by disasters, the community came together and did not let the disaster pull it apart. “Santiam Strong” signs and banners were placed in the ashy ground, and a sense of defiance to rebuild was born. Capitalize on this desire to come together and use it to promote recovery efforts, develop community-based plans to deal with the next disaster, and develop an effective volunteer force.
  • And know where the dang cat is.

The cat “The General” had no trouble relaxing at the fire station (Source: Perino, 2020).

Charles (Chuck) Perino is the emergency manager and safety officer for the City of Albany, Oregon. He has worked in Oregon land use and emergency management planning for over 20 years. He graduated from the Naval Postgraduate School with a master’s degree in Homeland Defense and Security in 2014 and earned his Certified Emergency Manager (CEM) accreditation in 2022.

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