Saphara Harrell of the Salem Reporter on the scene of a wildfire in Oregon

Saphara Harrell of the Salem Reporter on the scene of a deadly wildfire in Oregon

This past Labor Day, three reporters in Salem, Oregon were enjoying the holiday weekend. They’d done a good job preparing stories in advance so they wouldn’t have to scramble the next day to fill their news site, the Salem Reporter.

State government and business reporter Jake Thomas swam in the Willamette River, caught up on his Margaret Atwood book, enjoyed a chocolate ice cream cone and tried not to think about work.

Saphara Harrell, a local government and breaking news reporter, went surfing that Monday at the beach in Pacific City. She ended the day with a walk in Salem, noticing a slight haze in the evening sky. She went to sleep that night thinking about the racial justice protests in Salem, expecting she’d be covering them the next day.

Education and nonprofits reporter Rachel Alexander had spent the weekend visiting her parents in Seattle. On Monday, she noticed the dark and smoky air, thought about a fire burning in a remote stretch of Oregon wilderness, and wondered if it was big enough to warrant coverage in Salem. She ended the long holiday weekend thinking about education story ideas and hoping the coming week would be less muggy.

When they went to sleep that Monday night, they were aware of the Beachie Creek fire, burning in a remote stretch of Oregon wilderness. But that’s unremarkable during fire season in the West.

A few hours later, all three reporters woke to this email from their editor:

4:45 a.m.   We have a major wildfire burning to the east of Salem with the entire Santiam Canyon shut down. I need you all to get on deck ASAP until we can figure this out.

Thomas, Harrell, and Alexander comprise the entire newsroom of the Salem Reporter, an all-digital, locally owned news outfit. Along with one regular freelance photographer, they cover daily news in Oregon’s capital city, which has seen local news coverage shrink as the traditional news industry contracts. There is one daily newspaper where there once were two, some community radio stations, and, as the Reporter staffers said: “now us.”

All three bolted out of bed that Tuesday morning in response to editor’s alert. They were soon in midst of the 50-mph winds that were fanning flames into one of the most devastating wildfires in Oregon’s history. While they chased the breaking news, their editor, Les Zaitz, who was a finalist for a 2014 Pulitzer Prize when he was a reporter at The Oregonian, saw an opportunity: a long-form narrative that braided multiple storylines into a comprehensive bigger picture.

Newspapers from the Oregonian to The New York Times sent reporters to cover this fire, and they produced gripping narratives. But Nieman Storyboard noticed this one small news organization that devoted its entire staff — a team already stretched thin covering local news, state government, racial justice demonstrations and the coronavirus.

“We do daily coverage on our beats,” said Alexander. “But our goal, and what we hope sets us apart, is reporting that adds context and background to complicated issues.”

And this month, that meant reporting and writing a compelling, 4,500-word narrative, published a week after the devastating fire. We asked the team how they balanced breaking news with a longform story. Meet the team and hear what they had to say, then learn more in an annotation of the story, which follows.

Meet the Reporters

Rachel Alexander of the Salem Reporter

Rachel Alexander

Rachel Alexander
I’ve been working professionally as a journalist since 2012, when I took a part-time job at the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin during my senior year of college. I worked as a reporter in eastern Washington before coming to Salem as one of the founding reporters for the Salem Reporter. Normally, I cover education and nonprofits, but I’m also our resident data geek and used to cover health care in Spokane, so I’ve done a lot of our COVID reporting as well.

Saphara Harrell of the Salem Reporter

Saphara Harrell

Saphara Harrell
I’ve been working as a journalist since 2016. I interned at the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville before moving to Oregon to start at The World in Coos Bay, covering county government and eventually city hall. I joined the Salem Reporter in June 2019 and now cover local government, public safety and the homelessness crisis in Salem. As a small team, our coverage often expands far beyond those boxes.

Jake Thomas of the Salem Reporter

Jake Thomas

Jake Thomas
I’ve been working as a journalist since 2008. I’ve worked at small local publications, a trade magazine, an alt-weekly, a daily and landed articles in national publications, like The Atlantic. I worked at The Columbian in Vancouver and the Inlander in Spokane before coming to the Salem Reporter.

Storyboard’s Q&A with the reporters is lightly edited for length and clarity.

It’s pretty gutsy to take on a huge pull-back narrative while simultaneously chasing breaking news. How do you balance the two — as a team as well as in your individual work?
Rachel Alexander: The three of us communicate obsessively about what everyone’s working on, and we loop in Les (Zaitz) when we’re unsure how to prioritize. We’ve had times when the whole team is working on a big story and we don’t get much daily news out. Our subscribers understandably don’t like that.

For this story, Jake and Saphara took the lead on reporting and writing. I chased down some specific details and sources while simultaneously filing daily news updates on fires, school-related impacts and volunteer efforts. Freelance photographer Amanda Loman, produced incredible galleries showing the devastation along Highway 22. A couple of news-sharing partnerships we’ve built (including an education reporter collaborative in Oregon) provided relevant daily news for our readers while we were focused on this.

Where did the idea for this narrative approach come from?
Rachel Alexander: We spent the Tuesday after Labor Day doing daily coverage of the fire, because everything was so new and horrifying and there were so many stories to tell. Les assigned the big narrative re-creation of the “Night From Hell” the next morning, but was concerned about whether the team would be able to tackle it. We’d all just worked a 12-hour day and he was worried about burnout, something all of us struggled with in varying degrees with the never ending march of coronavirus news in the spring.

Pulitzer Prize winner and Oregon news site owner Les Zaitz

Les Zaits

Les suggested he could work on this while we all focused on daily coverage. But then we had a sort of friendly staff mutiny, led by Saphara, who basically said, “This is a huge story, I don’t care about overtime, and I’m heading up the canyon today to report.” Jake and l reached a similar conclusion, and so the reporters basically went back to Les and said, “We’re all in on this, and we’ll tell you if we’re getting too tired to keep reporting.” So the goal from the start was as comprehensive a narrative as we could get.

Les thought that so much reporting being done was about one person’s harrowing tale of survival and escape, and those stories, compelling as they are, blur together after a certain point. We wanted to combine the power of those personal narratives and the details that really make people feel like they were there with the story of the fire itself — what was expected, how big it got, how fast it moved, and what happened as fire crews had to go from fighting the fire to evacuating themselves. As the week progressed and it became clear that the worst of the fire was over, we were able to turn our attention more to unraveling what had happened — and what’s ahead.

How competitive do you feel at a time like this with the Salem Statesman and the Oregonian?
Jake Thomas: Over the years, the Oregonian has scaled back the expance of its coverage so its geographic reach isn’t what it used to be; I don’t think there’s that much overlap with readership in the Salem area. I feel competitive with the Statesman and it’s always a thrill to beat the daily. Even if they beat us to something, I like it when we do a story with a different angle or provide a different piece of context. A city like Salem needs to have more than one news outlet.

Reporting on a rapidly unfolding, geographically dynamic, complex disaster presents multiple challenges. Can you talk about some of your biggest challenges and how you addressed them?
Jake Thomas: Part of what made this manageable was we were focusing on one night when this fire raged out of control. We all took a step back and tried to arrange information chronologically and then tell the story through the viewpoints of various people who were affected that night.

How did you even begin to mobilize? What did those first few hours/days look like for your staff?
Rachel Alexander: Our editor, Les, is an early bird, so it’s not unusual to wake up to 5 a.m. emails from him. I’d gone to sleep in my basement because Monday night was so hot and my house doesn’t have air conditioning. I remember waking up, looking out the window and assuming it was 4 or 5 a.m. because the sky was still very dark. Then my husband told me it was nearly 8 o’clock. I saw a missed call, voicemail, and several emails from Les saying we all needed to get in gear because we’d had a major wildfire overnight. I went straight to the state fairgrounds where evacuees were streaming in, because it’s just a few blocks from my house, and started interviewing people to get a feel for what was going on. A lot of that first day for me was just walking home, typing up copy, then walking back over to see what was happening, describe the scene, and watch as more people and more livestock showed up.
Jake Thomas: I usually check my email when I wake up around 7 a.m. It had been a three-day weekend and I hadn’t paid that much attention to the news. When I saw my emails, I could tell this was going to be a big story. The drive into work was surreal. The smoke had blocked out the sun.

How, as a team, did you organize your efforts? How do you make sure you’re not calling the same sources or otherwise crossing paths?
Rachel Alexander: The three of us stay in touch throughout the day on Slack, checking in if we’re not sure who’s tackling what. For this story, we made a Google Doc early on just listing sources and phone numbers and general reporting that was needed — who’s tackling law enforcement accounts, who’s calling the fire information officers, who’s messaged which residents on Facebook.

When it came time to write the story, how did you do it? Was there a lead writer? Did you each write a section?
Jake Thomas: We came up with an outline that told the story chronologically. We started putting in our reporting in places where it made sense. Then we went back and smoothed over transitions and did some rearranging. Before we sent it over for a final edit, we did a group call and reviewed it.

What were some of the tools you used to assemble a mosaic of moments, details, characters, and facts into a narrative? Google Earth? Timelines? Time-stamped social media posts? Photos and videos from eyewitnesses? A storyboard or outline of some sort?
Jake Thomas: Google Maps were definitely useful. I held them up next to maps used by fire crews to get a sense of where fire crews were and how the fire spread.
Saphara Harrell: A general awareness of how the region is laid out is helpful. I’ve hiked up there so many times I have a vague sense of where everything is, so when people are talking about a certain trail, it’s easier for me to visualize it because I’ve been there. We also used trail descriptions, photos from that night, and photos from Google reviews.

What role did the editor play in the story?
Jake Thomas: Les conceived the story. We touched base with him regularly to make sure that our reporting was hitting the right notes and the story’s organization would work. He provided some reporting as well and then handled the chore of melding the work of three reporters into a read that was long but fast paced. He also pushed for additional reporting to sharpen key scenes with more detail.

Annotation: Storyboard’s questions and comments are in red; The Salem Reporter’s responses are in blue. To read the story without the annotations, click the ‘Hide all annotations’ button, which can be found below the contributors’ list on the right-hand side of the web page, or at the top of your mobile screen.

Remains of a home after the Sept. 8 Santiam Canyon fire in Oregon

A statue of a bear still stands by a home burned by the Sept. 8, 2020, Beachie Creek Fire in Oregon's Santiam Canyon

SPECIAL REPORT: A night in hell – Santiam Canyon’s ordeal

As people turned in for the night in the Santiam Canyon on Labor Day, one wildfire that had been held at bay for three weeks was unleashed and a second started a westward march that proved to be stunningly destructive. Salem Reporter has assembled this account of that night in the canyon from interviews and documents.

By Jake Thomas, Saphara Harrell and Rachel Alexander – Salem Reporter

September 15, 2020 at 1:28pm

After a day kayaking, retired teacher Scott Torgeson dropped into sleep Monday night in his mountain home on the North Fork Santiam River.

To the east, Tara Stone settled into her family’s camper at the Detroit Lake State Recreation Area campground, listening to a quickening wind as her husband and son slept.

And outside Mill City, Bonnie Sullivan turned in for the night after a telephone call with her husband, who was working as a carpenter in Australia. In a story like this, so many people are involved and affected that it can be easy to overwhelm the reader with too many characters. How did you go about choosing your main characters? What were some of your considerations? (eg Proximity to the fire in terms of geography? Representation of stakeholder groups? etc) Jake Thomas: Our goal was to include voices from a range of people affected by the fire that night (i.e. residents, campers).

Far above them all, a wildfire they couldn’t see was gathering speed and power in ways that would soon transform their lives.

The previously manageable Beachie Creek Fire was on the move on Labor Day 2020, propelled by high winds. The fire started three weeks earlier just south of the off-grid community Jawbone Flats, its cause unknown.

Now pushed by gusts to 65 mph, the fire roared across the national forest, covering about 500 feet in a second.  The world’s fastest runners would need 15 seconds to cover the same ground. Great idea to put the speed of the fire in human terms. How did this idea originate? Jake Thomas: Using numbers—miles, or miles per hour—can strike readers as abstract. This hopefully helps readers visualize the stunning spread of the fire. That was something witnesses remarked on—how fast the fire seemed to spread.

The east winds pushed the fire into the canyons such as French Creek and Tumble Creek and the North Fork, geographic funnels that aimed the fire at the Santiam Canyon.

Veteran firefighters, soon retreating for their own safety, had never seen such an explosive fire. What had covered about 700 acres by Labor Day would by the next morning burn over more than 130,000 acres. To the east, its twin fire, the Lionshead, would get on the move as well, racing down from the Cascade ridgeline into the Breitenbush drainage.

By the time its extent was evident, the wildfire had killed at least four people, destroying homes and businesses up and down the Santiam Canyon. A mountain paradise that was home to thousands and beloved by thousands more campers, hikers and boaters was a smoking ruin.

Along with other wildfires, more than 1 million acres of Oregon have been covered the past week by blazes. How, as a team, do you keep track of so many quickly evolving disasters? And how do you collectively see the big picture? Jake Thomas: We decided to focus on just one fire, so that made it easier.

The 2020 fire season is now set to dwarf 2015, when 633,00 acres burned and state agencies warned fire seasons were becoming longer and more severe. A national climate assessment in 2018 forecast that ongoing impacts of climate change, leading to reduced snowpack and hotter, drier summers, would make once-exceptional wildfire seasons more typical.

Salem Reporter assembled this account of how the end of a holiday weekend turned into a midnight disaster through interviews with Santiam Canyon residents, firefighters, law enforcement officials, meteorologists, written accounts, government notices, and videos of those fleeing on Monday and Tuesday. To what extent have user-generated videos changed your approach to reporting? Where do you find them, and how do you use them? Jake Thomas: We spent a lot of time on social media finding first-hand accounts. It’s definitely best to see things first-hand. But social media can help fill in gaps for things you can’t be there to see. The videos also allowed us to get a quick fix on where was damage significant and what accounts were available about escaping the fires.

‘Something like this was going to happen’

Early Monday morning, meteorologist Scott Weishaar, assigned to the incident command crew on the Beachie Creek Fire, warned firefighters that warm temperatures, low humidity and strong winds were expected to combine to create heightened fire danger in the 767 acres on fire in the Opal Creek Wilderness.

Fire officials anticipated what they called an “east wind event,” pushing the fire out of the high ridges and into the canyons. To prepare, the duty of dealing with the Beachie Creek Fire had days earlier had been turned over to Incident Management Team 13  – a skilled and well-resourced federal squad experienced in managing large wildfire. What are some of the challenges of reporting on an event managed by local, state, and federal agencies? How, as a team, do you coordinate which reporter is reaching out to which source? Who do you call first? Jake Thomas: Luckily, for us, the response effort seemed to be well-coordinated between state and federal agencies — at least their media team was. Doing a project like this requires a good game plan to make sure we know who is calling which sources. The team set up camp in Gates.

The primary concern was for the homes and campgrounds strung along the North Fork Road, which branches off Highway 22 and leads to a network of Forest Service roads put in for logging and now used more often for camping and reaching the Opal Creek Wilderness.

By 9 a.m. Monday, Marion County sheriff’s deputies were at doors in the community of Elkhorn, populated by retirees and vacationers. They warned of the fire and told residents to be ready to evacuate.

In the forest to the north and east, the firefighters assigned to Incident Management Team 13 worked to clear remote roads of trees and other debris, opening the way for crews to later attack the expected move of the fire. Other crews cruised the North Fork drainage, noting homes and other structures and what it would take to save them.

But safety of the crews was paramount. The day’s detailed plan noted that firefighters would be pulled out if sustained winds rose above 20 mph in the drainages of Cedar Creek, which pointed at Elkhorn, and French Creek, which led to Detroit. The forecast called for such winds to hit about 3 p.m. Monday.

At that time, John Spencer, responsible for operations and planning for the fire, was in the field monitoring conditions. He was high up Opal Creek when, at five minutes after 3 p.m., the fire “stood up,” he later recalled. How did you get this level of precision on the timing of certain events? Did you use a timeline when structuring the narrative? Jake Thomas: It comes down to asking simple, precise questions, such as, “When did this happen?” We initially started using a timeline to structure the events. It was helpful at first, but as the fire got into the early morning hours, sources couldn’t remember exact times of events. However, using the timeline was still really useful is charting an overall direction for the story.

As the increased wind fed the blaze, he heard deep rumbling noises that sounded like passing trains, followed by a big column of black smoke as the fire ran across the forest canopy.

“When the wind hit the fire itself, that’s when everything took off and started moving,” he said.

The order went out to fire crews: Clear out.

They returned to the fire camp, situated at the former Gates Elementary School, to wait out the coming storm.

Bernie Pineda, an information officer on the fire team, looked out the window at the incident command post about 4 p.m. Monday, observing the weather shift from a light breeze to gusty and the sky turn darker. Hours later, that wind would trigger new trouble in Gates.

Up the canyon, in Detroit, power went out at about 4 p.m. but those vacationers and residents still in town had no indication their community was in any imminent fire danger.

By 6 p.m., a weather station to the south in the community of Jordan recorded winds gusting to nearly 30 mph. The Jordan monitor sits below the tree line, which means the wind it picks up is moderated by the forest. Above the canopy, meteorologists said the winds were far more intense.

Off to the east, Joanie Schmidgall, a Forest Service employee, was on duty at the Coffin Mountain fire lookout, perched at 5,771 feet and normally with a sweeping view of the Mount Jefferson Wilderness. How do you keep readers oriented in a story with rapidly changing point of view between many different characters? Saphara Harrell: Structuring the story along a timeline and including maps allows us to take readers somewhere in their minds. If they’re in Detroit mentally, we want to be conscious about letting them know there’s a scene change. . But on Labor Day, she and the seasonal fire employee with her could only see a foggy, smoky abyss in sustained winds. Through late afternoon, Schmidgall listened to developments on the radio as the Lionshead Fire that had started on the east side of the Cascades started burning west into the Willamette National Forest.

Her plan to stay at the tower overnight was scrubbed when she was ordered off the mountain and directed to the Detroit Ranger Station, across the highway from the Detroit Lake state campground. Driving alone, Schmidgall worked her way downhill on a lacework of Forest Service roads before reaching Highway 22 and turning towards Detroit.

Like the rest of Detroit, the ranger station was dark. Schmidgall found other employees hunkered inside, using headlamps to move around.

She sensed it was going to be a bad storm.

Google Map showing the communities in the Santiam Canyon. (Saphara Harrell/Salem Reporter)

How do you use Google Earth and Google Maps in your reporting? Are there any other similar tools you can recommend? Saphara Harrell: I use MyMaps from Google to create easy maps that give readers a visual sense of where we’re talking about. I’ve used Google maps in my reporting many times, especially when reconstructing a police chase or other geographically-oriented detail because I’m a visual person and I think it helps take readers there. We also use Google Flourish to create data visualizations for the same purpose.

No threat in Detroit

At 7:48 p.m., Michelle Lane of Salem looked at a message  coming in from Jim Trett, a retired firefighter from Keizer who is mayor of Detroit. How did you get records of messages? Were these radio transmissions or text messages? Jake Thomas: We didn’t use many records. It was mostly based on interviews of sources. Some witnesses shared specific messages.  Lane, a family nurse practitioner, and her husband Jason owned a second home in Detroit. Trett’s message said that the Breitenbush area, along a drainage north of Detroit, was being put on notice to be ready to evacuate. No notice was judged necessary at the time for Detroit, the message said.

But just moments later, at about 8 p.m., unexpected trouble developed downriver in Gates.

Pineda, part of the incident management team, was walking back to his tent to grab a flashlight when he heard the distinctive sound of a transformer ready to pop.

He heard a loud hum, then saw orange light emanating from the transformer light up the sky 120 yards away from where firefighters were camping in a clump of tents behind a church.

Gusts were ripping through the Santiam Canyon and the power lines in Gates fell, charged a metal fence and instantly set a fire. Firefighters went to work, unrolling hoses and trying to put out fires that were springing up around them in the town of 500. How’d you gather the details to create this scene? Were any of the scenes in this story observed first-hand? Or were they all re-created through interviews and other sources? Saphara Harrell: I initially found out the fire camp had set fire through a casual conversation with a Forest Service guy as our photographer and I went out to assess the damage from the fire. I tucked it away for future reference and a couple days later was able to recreate the scene through an interview with someone who was there. Pineda told me he heard the “distinctive sound” of a transformer about to pop and I asked, “What did that sound and look like? How far away was it?”

Pineda grabbed a Pulaski to make sure the firefighters ahead of him weren’t surprised by spot fires from behind, stomping small fires out with his boot while hearing relentless wind downing deciduous trees that were thundering to the ground in the distance.

As more power lines fell, 12 new fires ignited. How do you learn (and fact check) specifics like this on deadline? Saphara Harrell: We send out rigorous fact-checking emails before any large enterprise piece that we publish. This involves going over every detail we hear from someone. So when the Forest Service says 13 fires ignited, we go back and ask if that’s factual. I didn’t specifically ask this detail but it was mentioned in passing during a conversation.  The fire camp – the headquarters for the effort to contain Beachie Creek – was now on fire itself.

In Detroit

Kevin Cameron, a Marion County commissioner, had returned to his darkened home in Detroit Monday evening after sharing ice cream and peach cobbler with his neighbors . Why do you include details like this? Saphara Harrell: Details are what set a good story apart from a great story. It transports the reader to a Labor Day on the lake where an evening sharing homemade ice cream turns into a night fleeing for your life. That detail also provides a slice of life that gets at where people’s minds were that evening before everything would irreparably change for them.

At 9:24 p.m. he got a phone alert that the Breitenbush area, 11 miles to the northeast, was under a “go” evacuation order while communities north of Highway 22 from Gates to Detroit were told to be prepared to evacuate starting at noon Tuesday. Cameron, his fiancé and her daughter settled in to watch the Kevin Costner movie “Draft Day,” relying on their generator to power the house.

Members of the Breitenbush Fire Department who fought the Beachie Creek Fire in Oregon

Tim McDevitt and Daniel Dundon, on the left, stayed behind at Breitenbush Hot Springs overnight as fire burned around them. They were joined on Tuesday, Sept. 8, by Fire Chief Jordan Pollack. Capt. Neil Clasen and Erik Wennstrom of the Breitenbush Fire Department

Meantime, the Lionshead fire roared towards Breitenbush. The area includes campgrounds, a community of summer homes and Breitenbush Hot Springs Resort and Conference Center. The retreat is anchored by a lodge and provides guest cabins.

Colby Neuman, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Portland, stayed up at home into Monday night and watched the advancing satellite footage of hot spots “in horror” as the fire spread rapidly.

As the fire threat became apparent, volunteers with the Breitenbush Fire Department and sheriff’s deputies moved through the community, urging people to go. They escorted people down the North Fork Breitenbush River road to Highway 22, directing them east over Santiam Pass as the safest route.

Working in the dark and without help, the volunteer firefighters tried to hold the fire at bay around the Breitenbush summer homes, then had to fall back to the resort itself.  As conditions worsened, the firefighters realized they had to get out. What informs your decisions about when to withhold attribution for the flow of the narrative? Jake Thomas: When we’ve heard the same thing from multiple sources, it makes it an easier call. Les Zaitz: The speed of the story was going to be key to its readability. Doing the source citation early in the draft eliminated the pace-killing “he said”/”she recalled.”

Dan Dundon and Tim McDevitt volunteered to stay put, hoping to use the fire engine and water resources to protect the resort. They would be alone and out of touch until later Tuesday.

Meantime, Michelle Lane and her husband left their Salem home for their Detroit cabin to retrieve personal items, anticipating a possible evacuation restriction the next day or so. They had no intention of getting into a fire zone.

Traveling in two cars, they stayed in touch by phone, commenting on fire they saw as they passed through lower end of the Santiam Canyon. They dodged tree limbs littering the road.

When they arrived at about 11 p.m., the town was dark and the air was smoky. No fire was visible. Sheriff’s deputies advised them to gather up their important items and check back in when they were leaving. For the Lanes, the conversation was striking because Detroit at the time was under no known threat.

As they gathered their belongings, the situation in Gates grew dire. Firefighters had been unable to stop the fires triggered by downed power lines and spread by the winds coming downriver.

Ken Cartwright had been in bed about 15 minutes when he woke to the sound of sirens. Cartwright is the news manager for the low power nonprofit radio station KYAC in Mill City that serves the territory from Sublimity to nearly Detroit.

Cartwright left his home at about 10:15 p.m., making his way five miles to the station, where he went on the air to share what information he could get.

A half hour after he left his home, firefighters yielded to the spreading fire in Gates, abandoning the effort to save the fire camp and the town and moving out along with others in the community. The fire would take homes on both sides of the highway, burn the lone motel in town and reduce the fire camp to ruins.

Cartwright kept broadcasting as escapees streamed by heading west. He would stay on the air for nearly four yours. Did this coverage prove helpful in figuring out the timing and sequence of events? Saphara Harrell: Unfortunately, Cartwright didn’t have a copy of his night on the airwaves (although we asked). The most helpful thing for timing was people’s own accounts, cell phone time stamps, posts on Facebook and emergency alerts sent out by the sheriff’s office.

Evacuating Detroit

By midnight, the Beachie Creek Fire was on the march down the French Creek drainage.

At 1 a.m., the Marion County Sheriff’s Office issued an alert to  immediately evacuate a stretch along Highway 22 from Big Cliff Dam, about 16 miles east of Gates, to Mehama, home of the beloved Gingerbread House. The North Fork Road territory also was to evacuate.

In Detroit, Cameron, the county commissioner, hoped to alert his community to the need to leave, taking to Facebook:  “evacuating Detroit now. We have a level 3 go!!!! Now 22 west is open for evac.” What role did Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, and other social media platforms play in your reporting? Jake Thomas: It was critical in finding sources and seeing first-hand pictures of the fire’s aftermath.

Cameron left in a convoy of three vehicles and looked up the hill to see flames, reminding him that it wasn’t a false alarm, that the fire was coming.

It took him nearly an hour of white-knuckle driving to cover the 20 miles to Mill City.

“I could not see. It was like being in fog and fire,” he said. “The smoke was just swirling.”

The Lanes saw the 1 a.m. evacuation alert and thought it covered Detroit as well. They grabbed a few more items and were readying to leave when they heard loudspeakers in the community: “Get out now.”

They tried.

They started heading back to Salem and were just about to cross the bridge over the Breitenbush River on the west end of Detroit when they saw fire coming over the French Creek Ridge.

“It was like hot lava,” Lane recalled.

She slammed on her brakes, reversing course to check with firefighters in the center of Detroit. They told her to head east on Highway 22.

At the state park, where about 70 of 385 campsites were occupied, the sirens blaring through Detroit caught the attention of Tara Stone. She looked out the window at her parents’ campsite. She thought the sirens were in response to an accident and wasn’t concerned.

Stone had been coming to the state park for most of her life. When she checked in that afternoon for a week-long vacation with her extended family, the only danger park rangers warned her of was branches falling from trees.

That afternoon, she went for a bike ride and took the dogs for a walk.

“The fires are far enough away,” she recalled thinking. “We don’t have to worry.”

But that night the sound of sirens got closer and then flashing lights filled the loop she was camped in. Next, she heard the voice of a firefighter yelling, “Level 3! Go now!” Stone woke her husband.

“Honey, we gotta go,” she said.

“What do you mean?” he said.

“A firefighter just said, ‘It’s Level 3 evacuation; go now,’” she said. Dialogue can be one of the hardest things to report, particularly when it’s recreated and not overheard by a reporter. Did you reconstruct this through an interview? In your reporting, did you run across any unexpected sources of recorded dialogue? Jake Thomas: This was recreated through an interview. I did not come across any unexpected sources of dialogue. But I try to use it when I can.

She could smell smoke and the campsite was blanketed with tree branches broken loose by the wind but still she didn’t think they were in danger. Her family loaded up and left the campground.

Her family pulled into a “bad dream.”

Flames licked the sides of the road as her husband drove the truck around fallen trees and power lines. Burning trees glowed red with embers. The truck windows turned hot. She wondered if the tires on the vehicle would pop. She also wondered: Where were her parents?   These are great sensory details. When you’re reporting for scene, how do your questions differ to tease out this level of detail? Jake Thomas: I tried to get inside the cab on the truck with her and get her to tell me what she was experiencing. It requires a lot of questions until you have a good sense.

Outside of Lyons, the highway turned into two lanes going west and all the vehicles rushed ahead, none heeding the speed limit. As soon as her family’s vehicle was within about 13 miles of Interstate 5, the fires were behind them. She finally felt safe.  She later made it back home to Sherwood, where she was reunited with her parents.

At the Detroit Ranger Station, Schmidgall, who had been sleeping on the floor, woke when the acting ranger at about 1 a.m. pounded on the door and told her to go.

“It was so disorienting and so mind boggling because we thought we were miles to the fires,” she said. “The thought of it making it to Detroit was absolutely inconceivable.”

The sky glowed red behind the ranger station as she started driving alone. She saw an active fire next to the Detroit Dam, the first time she really thought: This is scary and serious.

VIDEO: The Beachie Creek Fire turned the sky red over Detroit. (Video courtesy of Laura Harris)

As she drove closer to Mill City, trees were torching and embers were flying across the road. Visibility was down to 20 feet and she was thinking about rocks rolling down the steep slopes adjacent to the highway. She had to intermittently stop because of emergency vehicles flying by to save houses.

Around 3:20 a.m. the Marion County Sheriff’s Office told deputies in the canyon to fall back as the fire spread.

“Conditions in the Santiam Canyon east of Mehama have become extremely dangerous and all residents who have not yet evacuated need to do so immediately,” the agency said in a Facebook post. Did you use time stamps from Facebook (and other posts) to figure out the sequence of events? Saphara Harrell: Yes. Facebook proved to be a useful tool in nailing down timelines. Often, people don’t have a strict recollection of time (although some do) and adding in details from Facebook gives us a concrete time to work around.

Not everyone got out at the time.

A dash for life

On the North Fork Road, others were trying to escape as well.

The Tofte family was at their home when the fire arrived. Angela Mosso was there with her 13-year-old son Wyatt and her 71-year-old mother Peggy. As fire rained embers on the home, Tofte told her son to run for his life with the family dog. She then tried to escape on foot, moving down North Fork Road.

Upriver, Scott Torgeson, 72, was roused from his sleep by the sound of exploding propane tanks at a neighbor’s house. He hadn’t heard deputies earlier urging people to evacuate.

Wearing a swimsuit and T-shirt, Torgeson started driving towards Highway 22 but struck a downed tree he couldn’t see in the smoke. With homes and trees burning on both sides of the road, Torgeson took off on foot.

At about mile post 4, he encountered a badly injured woman who also was trying to walk out. She told Torgeson she couldn’t go on. It was Angela Mosso.

Torgeson encountered Mosso’s husband, Chris Tofte, driving in to find his family. Torgeson told him about the woman alongside the road.

Tofte found the woman and, according to a report in the Statesman Journal, didn’t recognize her at first as his wife because she was badly burned. He loaded her up in his truck, later stopped to get Torgeson, and made his way to the North Fork Road intersection with Highway 22.

They waited there for ambulances, likely in the glow of the burning remnants of the Oregon Department of Forestry station at that intersection. State firefighters by 3 a.m. had given up trying to save the compound and evacuated. Interesting that you chose to withhold the resolution of this cliffhanger — What happened to the boy and his dog and his grandma?! — until the post-narrative “Aftermath” section, which summarizes it. Why not include it as a dramatic scene? Were there reporting considerations, such as sensitivity to the victims,  or other challenges? Les Zaitz: Keeping events moving without going to the end of each episode helped capture the chaos of the night — and moved the story along without pause.

At around 4:30 a.m., Bonnie Sullivan stirred from her sleep in her home on the banks of the Santiam to the buzzing of her cell phone. She read the notice to evacuate.

Sullivan, who runs a quilting business, was alone. She grabbed a few items and went to get her car out of the garage but couldn’t make the electric garage door open manually.

Sullivan pulled on a backpack and a face mask and used the flashlight on her cell phone to walk out the driveway to the street and then to Highway 22. There wasn’t another person around.

Across the river on the hillside, she spotted flames for the first time.

At the highway, one car passed her by when she tried to flag it down. Moments later, a man alone in another car stopped. His car was jammed with boxes and suitcases. He said he had no room for her but promised to send help.

Then they hit on an idea.

The man popped the trunk and Sullivan settled in on top of the boxes there, her feet dangling over the bumper. She held on with both hands, intending to get off in Mill City.

The man didn’t stop and instead gathered speed as Sullivan saw one building after another on fire. He pulled in at the Gingerbread House at Mehama, leaving Sullivan in the care of police and taking off again. Is this a local landmark? You’ve mentioned it a couple of times. Do you deliberately use landmarks instead of, say, street names, to orient readers? Jake Thomas: Definitely. Especially with such a remote area, street names start to lose their meaning. But a lot of people have driven past or stopped at the Gingerbread House.  

At the dam

As fire spilled over the northern flank of Santiam Canyon, a shift operator at the Detroit Dam did what he could to manage operations there.

At 5 a.m. Tuesday, Mike Pomeroy, alone on a regular overnight shift, shut off fans drawing air into the buildings because they were filling with smoke.

He then tried to evacuate, but encountered an inferno of smoke, embers, deadfall, flames and debris along the highway. One of his tires went flat. With no other choice, he returned to Detroit Dam.

By 6 a.m., he was reporting he couldn’t evacuate. He then lost contact as, at 6:24 a.m., the agency logged the development: “Phones/network down.”

Pomeroy wasn’t the only one trapped in place by the fire.

The highway east and west of Detroit had become impassable because of the fire, falling trees and rock slides.

In town, volunteers with the Idanha-Detroit Rural Fire Protection District gathered about 30 campers, residents and others – some with small children – who had missed the evacuation and directed them to Mongold Day Use Area, a state park with a boat ramp and picnic area just west of the state campground.

More trapped souls arrived, the number of firefighters and others growing to 70. They hunkered down in their vehicles away from the ash and wind while fire crews cleared brush to create a larger safe zone. They watched as the fire came closer.

VIDEO: On Labor Day, the Beachie Creek Fire rapidly marched down Santiam Canyon. The fire cut off routes for firefighters as well as campers and residents who missed the evacuation call for Detroit. With the fire closing in, they hunkered down in Mongold state park. (Video courtesy of Laura Harris)

This video captures such a dramatic, eerie scene. Lt. Harris is filming and narrating a dire situation: She and other firefighters and some civilians are trapped in the middle of encroaching flames and waiting for air extraction, cutting down trees to protect themselves, while waiting for help to arrive. Did you decide not to use this as a written scene in the narrative and instead let the video speak for itself? Jake Thomas: We got the video as we were wrapping up reporting and decided it would be a good way to break up the text and provide a first-hand account.

Fire leaders called for an air evacuation, and the National Guard tried around 8:30 a.m. that morning.

“Unfortunately, we never did lay eyes on them and they couldn’t see us and they couldn’t land because it was just so windy there and so smokey,” said Lt. Laura Harris, one of the fire volunteers.

The children grew scared. The fire crew handed out water, chips and nutrition bars to help calm everyone. After the air evacuation failed, firefighters prepared to form a wall with their engines to protect the people gathered there in case the fire closed in and there was no escape.

During the day, Harris caught a nap in her truck. Firefighters kept people calm. They waited.

Finally, that afternoon fire crew picked its way over Forest Service roads and down through the Breitenbush area to reach those stuck at Mongold. A convoy of sedans, trucks and other vehicles formed up to escape.

Two elderly men climbed into a truck with Harris for the long, slow trip past burning forest on their way to Estacada.

As they traveled, they got beyond flames and smoke disappeared.

Blue sky ahead told them they were at last safe.

AFTERMATH: Why did you choose to switch to a quick-hit summary instead of folding this into the narrative? Les Zaitz: The pace of the piece was really important. Stopping to tell how events ended would have impeded that flow. And gathering them all in one place seemed a service to the reader to answer: Whatever happened?

  • Fire burned into Detroit after the evacuation, destroying 264 homes and at least 14 businesses, including the Cedars Restaurant, Kane’s Marina and the Detroit Lake Motel.
  • Three Breitenbush Fire Department firefighters made to the resort Tuesday afternoon to find their two colleagues safe and the lodge still standing. Many resort buildings, including guest cabins, and private homes in the community were gone. The five worked the next 2 ½ days to save what they could.
  • Scott Torgeson was subsequently admitted to Legacy Emanuel Medical Center in Portland for treatment of burns on 20% of his body. HIs wife, Vivienne, died six weeks ago of cancer. Torgeson taught at Clear Lake Elementary School in Keizer for about 30 years. His former students have joined in helping a GoFundMe account set up for their teacher.
  • Authorities found the bodies of Peggy Mosso and Wyatt Tofte inside a vehicle at the family home, the first confirmed fatalities from the Beachie Creek Fire. Two more victims have since been found but not yet identified. Did you reach out to Angela Mosso? If so, how did she respond? If not, why not? Jake Thomas: She was in the hospital in critical condition at the time and unavailable.
  • Bonnie Sullivan made it from the Gingerbread House to her sister’s home and later was shown photos of her riverside home, destroyed by fire. She is still trying to learn the name of her rescuer to thank him.
  • Michelle and Jason Lane made it a few miles east of Detroit when they and others were stopped by a 3-foot diameter tree across the road. Fire had burned over the highway behind them. A man skilled with a chainsaw arrived about a half hour later and cut up the tree, repeating that several more times before those fleeing could make it through to Sisters. Michelle Lane doesn’t know the identity of the man but believes he possibly saved their lives.
  • Mike Pomeroy, the dam operator, sheltered at the dam for 30 hours and spent Tuesday night inside the structure as a fire burned around him. He finally made radio contact with his agency about 8 a.m. Wednesday. A crew rescued him and sent him home.
  • Detroit Lake State Park escaped damage; the trailers and tents left behind by fleeing campers were found intact when crews got back in.Editor Les Zaitz contributed reporting to this report.

Les Zaitz contributed to this report.


Storyboard contributor Kim Cross is a full-time freelance writer and author of “What Stands in a Storm,” a New York Times best-selling account of the biggest tornado outbreak on record. She loves meticulously reported literary nonfiction and discovering narrative craft in unexpected places.

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