Oregon's U.S. senators say they will press the Federal Emergency Management Agency and others to step up their efforts to aid people and businesses who lost their property or saw it damaged by the recent wildfires that swept the state after Labor Day.
Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley concluded a second round of statewide visits Saturday, Sept. 26, with a stopover in Mill City in Santiam Canyon.
Three fires — Beachie Creek, Lionshead and Riverside across Clackamas, Marion and Linn counties — account for more than half of the 1 million acres of forest lands burned in the Labor Day wildfires. Unusual east winds blew dense smoke all the way into Salem and Portland.
Wyden said community meetings with FEMA are planned in Stayton — at the western end of the canyon — plus Mill City, Gates and Lyons in the canyon.
"Communication is up at the top of the list," Wyden said. "Nothing in small-town rural Oregon comes together without decent communication. Housing is another urgent priority. Then I'd probably put debris, slash and landslides as a third issue coming up. We feel that FEMA can do more in each of those areas."
The senators met with Toney Raines, an official in the recovery division of FEMA's regional office in Bothell, Wash., and several local officials.
"Everybody wants to help," Mill City Mayor Tim Kirsch said. "We are getting so many calls from across the United States from people who want to donate labor and money. Coordination is a big thing for something like this."
Though only about 20 homes were lost to the fires themselves, Kirsch said Mill City — with a population of barely 2,000 — will be the center of recovery efforts. The nearby communities of Gates and Lyons were devastated.
"Everybody upriver is going to depend on us to supply the temporary housing," Kirsch said. "We are the only ones with the infrastructure in place to hook up with water and sewer."
Under questioning by Wyden, Raines said FEMA will have to find space for 65 trailers for use as temporary housing — and the nearest trailers were in Tracy, Calif., outside Stockton.
Todd Miller, superintendent of the Santiam Canyon School District, said the wildfires resulted in smoke damage he estimates at $2.5 million.
"I have teams ready to start cleaning," Miller said. "I do not have an answer to who pays for it."
Most of the buildings at the former Gates Elementary School, which the district sold in 2014 after moving the school to Mill City, were destroyed in the fire. But the historic 1927 building survived.
'Have them move quickly'
Merkley also said one reason for his visit with Wyden was to press FEMA and other agencies to let people know how they can start on recovery efforts.
"We are trying to put oil on those (governmental) gears and have them move more quickly so that we can get those issues answered and people can move forward with confidence," he said.
Merkley said in addition to disaster relief for residents and businesses, federal, state and local agencies have to guard against seasonal rains washing wildfire debris into the North Santiam River.
"The issue that has come up is how to protect the river from contaminants, both for the health of the river and the flow that comes down the river as a source of water for the cities below," Merkley said.
Salem depends on the North Santiam for its water supply. Among those present at Saturday's gathering was Mayor Chuck Bennett, who represented Santiam Canyon during a term in the Oregon House in the 1980s.
Earlier last week, the senators and four U.S. representatives urged the federal government to activate a Burned Area Emergency Response plan for the area. Their letter said:
"As Oregonians continue to battle hazardous air quality due to wildfire smoke, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the wildfires that continue to burn, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Department of Interior must have all the necessary resources to mitigate landslides and flash flooding in the areas impacted by these wildfires."
Marion County Commissioner Kevin Cameron knows firsthand about the effects of the Beachie Creek wildfire. His was among nine homes in a row that survived the fire — though with smoke damage — but many other buildings in the Detroit community were destroyed.
He said county government workers, already beset with coping with Oregon's second-highest caseload from the COVID-19 coronavirus, stepped up to the challenges during the wildfires.
"One of my concerns is about the safety of people going back," Cameron said. "They are alive, but will there be more injuries when they go back because they are not being careful?"
Cameron, who also was at an evacuation center at the Oregon State Fairgrounds in Salem when Wyden and Merkley visited Sept. 11, said he is glad for their presence.
"I am thankful that both senators were here," he said. "We are on the same page. We will stay on it every day contacting the feds. That is all we can do."
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.