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Santiam Canyon Fire survivors continue recovery almost two years later

Published: Mar. 21, 2022 at 10:57 PM PDT
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MARION COUNTY, Ore. (KPTV) - It’s been almost two years since fires ripped through Santiam Canyon. First breaking out in August 2020, fires burned hundreds of thousands of acres for months before they were contained in December 2020. Hundred of families are still needing help recovering.

“This is not a short run,” Nancy Jankowski, one of the survivors, said. “It’s an ultra-marathon for a lot of us. It’s still going on. We still deal with it every day.”

The Santiam Canyon fire hit her and her partner’s home in September 2020.

“Earlier that day we went to the top of our property and we could see a plume of smoke from Opal Creek, where the Beachie Creek had started,” Jankowski said. “My partner said it was 18 miles away and we didn’t have to worry about it. By 5 pm that day the power went out and we decided to pack a backpack just in case. 10 o’clock came around and we hadn’t heard anything yet so we tried to go to bed. It was at 12:15 in the morning that my phone went crazy telling us to go now. We never had a level 1 or level 2 notice. We jumped out of bed and grabbed the bags that we had packed and out by the door. I grabbed the cats. We had already moved the horses because I had a gut feeling so we moved them earlier that day. Within ten minutes we were out of the house and  driving down the road. We have a three and a half mile gravel road to go down to hit Highway 22 and there was already smoke like you wouldn’t believe. Big embers were flying. We were halfway down the road when we saw there was already a tree down. My partner had the forethought to put a power saw in the back of the truck. He was in his truck and I was in mine. He was able to cut the tree and we moved it out of the road. While we are leaving I’m also calling neighbors, there’s 6 of us on the hill, making sure they got the notice. By 3 a.m. we had confirmation from one of the Sheriffs that we’re friends with that he got a hit on one of the trail cans he set up on our property that it was just flames and then it went dead.”

The next day, a relative went to the area, livestreaming on social media to show the damage.

“I quickly texted him to please go up all the way to our house,” Jankowski said. “We have to know. He said sure, drove up there and took a video and we saw the house was gone.”

The property had been in Jankowski’s partner’s family for 100 years. The 3 and a half mile road is named after his grandmother. Almost everything was gone.

“We lost a majority of the farm equipment,” said Jankowski. “Everything in the home was gone. The only thing left was the hay barn. It went all around the hay barn and even today, even now, I’m still finding scorched leaves in the hay barn. I still ask myself how did this not go up? After that, you just start trying to put one foot in front of the other. It is a long, hard process just to start recovery. It’s a mess. It’s daily. It’s just frustrating.”

Jankowski and her partner are among the hundreds still recovering from the devastating fires today. She now works with the Santiam Disaster Services to help her community. The team of 15 has 8 case managers working with over 300 households.

“We had never had a fire here before so nobody knew exactly what to do,” said Melissa Baurer, the program director. “We are still seeing people every day. We still have households that are displaced in hotels, campers, and RVs. We have a mom with four children and she has been there for 14 months at a hotel in Salem and she desperately wants to get back to the Canyon. The children are bussed into school and she goes to pick them up each day. It’s hard. It’s hard to recover, to find employment, and to just live your life when you are in a hotel room. We have seniors who are still in hotels. One couple in an RV for the past 7 months with no electricity. They’re an elderly couple and he’s a veteran. We are trying to help all these people.”

The Santiam Canyon Wildfire Relief Fund was created to help those in need and so far over $4 million has been raised.

“100% of donations go towards helping survivors,” Baurer said. “Santiam Hospital has absorbed the administration and operational costs with the help of different supporters. The fund hit $4.2 million this week and the goal is $5 million. Realistically, we will need more. The fund is essential. People are still recovering and people are still displaced. We know we will be working with families 2,3,4 years down the line. This fund is essential towards their recovery.”

To Jankowski and so many others the Canyon is home and they will continue to help and rebuild as long as they need to.

“We’re here for the long term,” said Jankowski. “I’m here for the long term. It’s my community.”

To learn more about the Santiam Recovery, click here. Baurer says if you cannot donate monetarily, they always need volunteers.