Escaping the Flames, Forest Service employee shares moments wildfires raced toward them

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SALEM, OR (KPTV)- There is good news to report from the Beachie Creek Fire, Tuesday the Marion County Sheriff’s Office lowered evacuation levels in Mehama and Lyons to level two. For a week the two had been at a level three notice.

The Beachie Creek fire has burned acres some 190,000 acres from the town of Detroit all the way to Mehama and Lyons and to the north.

As that fire and the Lionshead fire further east on the Warm Springs Reservation made a push towards the west Monday night into Tuesday morning thousands were forced to flee their homes.

Joanie Schmidgall, with the U.S. Forest Service says Monday she was helping the with fire operation communications for the fires burning in the area. She says she was up at the Coffin Mountain fire lookout with another Forest Service Employee keeping an eye towards the east at the Lionshead Fire.

“It was positioned in a good place to be able to see the fire to the east,” Schmidgall said.

She says instead of staying at the fire lookout that night she headed down to the Detroit Ranger Station. Schmidgall says driving through the town of Detroit was eerie. The power was out, and limbs had begun to fall across the road as gusty winds were picking up.

Schmidgall says the plan was to sleep outside the Detroit Ranger Station, but they made the call to have everyone inside the building. It was simply too dangerous for people to be outside in the strong winds. People were sleeping on the floor in offices and in the gym. Schmidgall estimates there were 50 people total at the Detroit Ranger Station.

She says they felt safe knowing the fires were miles away.

“The thought of the fire moving as far as it did was unfathomable to us at the time. The Detroit Ranger station seemed like the safest place to be,” Schmidgall said.

They all went to sleep. But around 1:00 a.m. Tuesday, they were awaken and told to get out now.

“When we walked out the back door of the ranger station, the whole sky just glowed red,” Schmidgall said. “We could not see the fire, but it was just over the ridge behind the Detroit Ranger station.”

They all grabbed what they could and headed west on Highway 22 towards Salem. Schmidgall says they could not go east because of downed trees. As they made their way towards the Detroit Dam, that is when she says they started to see fire along the road. From there it was a harrowing drive the Santiam Canyon.

She says the train of cars and trucks was moving about 25 miles an hour as the navigated around limbs and falling rocks.

“Every instinct in your body tells you to drive as fast as you can but you can’t see anything,” Schmidgall said. “I was worried about trees falling, I was worried about rocks falling. There were emergency vehicles going back and forth.”

Schmidgall adds as they were driving the what-ifs were passing through her mind. Once they got to Gates, they saw just how bad these fires were. Flames were climbing trees and ripping homes apart.

In the early morning hours of Tuesday, the caravan of cars from the Detroit Ranger Station had made it to Salem. Everyone in the convoy was accounted for.

“It was hard watching it burn,” Schmidgall said.

Copyright 2020 KPTV-KPDX Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved.


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