One year after the Beachie Creek Fire devastated the Santiam Canyon, a tour revealed communities are rising from the ashes.
By Ted Case
We are only 25 miles west of the state capitol in Salem, but the Santiam Canyon feels far more remote, as if we are in a distant wilderness.
I am here as a guest of leaders from Philomath-based Consumers Power Inc., a group that includes CEO Roman Gillen, Operations Manager Billy Terry and Board Chair Russ Sapp. CPI, a 23,000-member cooperative, serves many areas of the canyon we will be touring on an anniversary of sorts.
We meet in Lyons at the Oregon Department of Forestry parking lot, of which the main building—like so much of the canyon—burned to the ground.
The last time I was in this spot, nearly a year before, I was also with CPI’s leaders as Gillen briefed Oregon’s congressional delegation and the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency in the aftermath of the September 7, 2020, Beachie Creek Fire.
The fire, which burned 500 acres, grew to more than 130,000 acres because of a historic wind event. It claimed five lives, destroyed 470 homes, and reduced entire communities—and CPI’s infrastructure— to rubble in an apocalyptic hellscape. “We’re going to rebuild,” Gillen told federal officials that day. “But it’s going to be a long, hard road.”
It seemed like an understatement. That day, it was hard to find a tree, home, or power pole that hadn’t suffered a knockout blow. The devastation was so complete it was hard to reimagine the area ever recovering.
But now we are in Terry’s Ford pickup, winding along North Fork Road to see for ourselves. The first thing I notice is we are not alone. Large trucks are everywhere— hauling trees and debris—along with oversized loads carrying cranes.
If this scene doesn’t convince me this area is in transition, our first stop along the road does. The sound of hammering echoes off both sides of the canyon walls. Residents whose properties consisted only of remnants of a brick chimney are starting anew, one nail at a time.
The landscape has dramatically changed, although it’s not the handiwork of a carpenter.
“Last year, it was brown as far as the eye could see,” Terry recalls. “Now look at the green on those hills. It’s unbelievable.”
The Ford navigates the steep, rugged terrain as Terry points out landmarks from the fire, including the spot he came across a dead bear, outrun by the flames with no trees to climb. He shows us where residents fled to the Santiam River to survive the night, a floating sanctuary from the blaze.
Further down the road, we admire a completely new section of power line in an area Terry notes was unpassable in the immediate aftermath of the fire from downed trees, wires, and poles.
“Anybody that stayed up there didn’t make it out,” he says.
Back on the road, we pass a tree crew. As Terry rolls down the window, the buzz of chainsaws fills the air. Even Sapp, a retired logger who knows more about forestry than anyone, is amazed by the number of trees piled by the side of the road.
Having a clear right-of-way is crucial to CPI’s goal of safely and responsibly restoring power to eager residents. The system, however, will look different than before, with more fire-resistant fiberglass poles and more underground power lines. Both Terry and Gillen laud FEMA for its commitment to help rebuild a power system that can last for decades.
The truck comes to an abrupt stop at the bottom of a narrow road. Terry peers disapprovingly at something in the distance. I see nothing of note, but my eye is untrained for a tree branch dangling precariously close to a three-phase distribution line.
“That wasn’t there last week,” he says, before calling the nearby tree crews to deal with the potential fire hazard.
“That’s what we’re dealing with,” says Gillen.
It’s an example of how there is no room for error for CPI or the people in the canyon.
We take the backroads to Detroit, a tourist town of only a few hundred people that was leveled by the fire. My last recollection of the town was desolation and the image of a burned-out fire truck on the side of the highway. Not anymore. Construction is everywhere, and there are food carts and a thriving tourist trade.
We tour a subdivision ringed by giant trees where the power lines will be buried for safety. It seems Terry has a personal story for every property we encounter, demonstrating how the co-op is a key driver in the town’s remarkable resurgence.
“It is not often a community gets to rebuild from the ground up,” Gillen says.
The tour complete, we head back toward Salem on Highway 22, on the same route residents of the canyon fled in the middle of night just a year ago, often leaving animals and heirlooms behind. They had no time. The fire was on both sides of the road, moving the length of a football field every second.
Now, rain splatters our windshield but soon passes. The area is in a severe drought, and wildfires are already burning in other parts of the state.
Danger looms, but for communities in the Santiam Canyon, there is also hope. Having taken the best shot Mother Nature could give them, we have witnessed how they shook it off and stood back up, literally rising from the ashes.