GATES – The senators had barely gotten out of their cars before being peppered with questions about why the electricity wasn’t shut off.
There were many questions asked of U.S. Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley in their tours of wildfire damage in Gates and Mill City on Saturday afternoon, many about the cleanup in the aftermath of the historic wildfires that destroyed much of the Santiam Canyon communities .
In touring the communities, the senators and an assembled group of local leaders saw first-hand melted cars, destroyed homes and churches that had been burned to rubble.
But what many wanted to know about were the downed power lines in the area that were blamed for 13 spot fires.
“It’s very clear you got to understand what went wrong in order to have any possible chance of preventing it from happening again,” Merkley said. “And so that’s the first step, is the full investigation of what went wrong, what started the fires.”
The Santiam Fire started Sept. 8 among high winds and combined with the Beachie Creek Fire from farther north, destroying nearly 500 homes and killing five people in the Santiam Canyon.
Pacific Power, which supplies power to those communities, said this week the area wasn’t an area designated to be in a public safety power shutoff area.
Downed power lines have been blamed for 1,500 wildfires in California in the past six years.
“We’re going to get to the bottom of it because this has gone on again and again,” Wyden said. “The first time I got out of the car, that was the question, and we’re going to get to the bottom of it. That’s been the longest running battle since the Trojan War, the power companies and the regulators.”
Mill City Mayor Tim Kirsch said he is more concerned about forest management practices, something he said many locals believe was better managed when forests in the Santiam Canyon were logged more heavily until the 1990s.
Many people believe the thousands of acres of forest scorched in the area were fueled by thick underbrush.
Kirsch said he doesn’t think he’s fair to blame the wildfires on the power companies.
“If they go to turn the power off every time the wind blows, I’m more concerned about that,” Kirsch said. “We’ve been here for a long time, and this is the first time anything like this happened.
“ This fire that swept through here came from Beachie Creek. There obviously was a couple of spot fires that came from power lines.”
Now that locals are being allowed to return to most of the impacted communities – Breitenbush and Crooked Finger Road remain the only ones still closed as of Saturday night – people are finally able to assess the extent of the damage.
Locals raised concerns to the senators about how private citizens will get rid of their fire-damaged debris, local governments like the city of Gates not having the money to pay the up-front costs for fire remediation, and how the water quality in the North Santiam River will be maintained.
Marion County Commissioner Kevin Cameron said Gov. Kate Brown said the state is working on sending 30 crews to clean up the damage from the wildfires.
“You have to understand this is not just our canyon, this is the whole state,” Cameron said. “The governor said that they were going to take this one. We got an email last night asking us to sign off by Monday, the state would take this on. And the challenge is telling everyone to be patient.”
Wyden said he would try to put disaster help for the canyon into the coronavirus relief package the house and senate have long debated.
“This is not going to be the last time we’re in this community,” Wyden said, standing next to a melted Dodge Durango in Gates. “It’s not one and done. We feel really strongly that when disaster hits Oregon, it’s not just about Portland and Eugene, it’s about rural towns that have a few hundred people, and you don’t turn them into sacrifice zones.”
It’s still too early to get a full accounting for the dollar value of the impacted property, but some estimates have come in.
Santiam Canyon School District Superintendent Todd Miller said preliminary estimates of the smoke damage suffered by the schools – including the three new buildings to house the high and middle schools – will cost $2.5 million to clean.
“It’s not a bill that we can take,” Miller said. “We don’t want people to come into a new, smoke-smelling school.
“That’s the hard part, too, even under the COVID time we were concerned about the kid’s mental health. And now, you take a look at what happened, all of our kids just went through a traumatic experience, so we want to do everything we can to try, even if it is just to get them in for counseling services, we want to make sure we can support them as best as possible right now.”
The full amount of damage in the cities including Detroit and Lyons may take years to determine.
Wyden and Merkley indicated federal help could also come in the form of infrastructure improvements, including a long-debated sewer system in the region.
“This is the first time any kind of disaster like this has been here,” Kirsch said. “I believe our two senators are very committed to seeing this through.
“I see this as an opportunity for us to rebuild and re-modernize our infrastructures and the way that we’re able to proceed.”