Tragedy chokes valley: McKenzie fire continues to devastate

Smoke from the McKenzie River fires devastates the valley on Sept. 8. BOB WILLIAMS/FOR THE CHRONICLE

Thousands of Oregonians have been evacuated due to wildfires, and those who fled to safety are in shock from the loss of their homesteads, their pets, and their missing neighbors and loved ones.

Oregon State Fire Marshal estimates the Holiday Farm fire stretches over 144,695 acres, and is expected to increase. The fire is 0% contained and is burning on both sides of Highway 126 and the McKenzie River and moving west from milepost 47 and is two miles past Vida. Residents Vida, Blue River, Mohawk, McKenzie Bridge, Leaburg and Walterville are called to evacuate. The exact cause is still under investigation.

Deaths are expected, said Steve Mokrohisky, county administrator, but were not yet confirmed. 

“We should expect loss of life from this fire,” said Mokrohisky at Tuesday’s emergency Lane County Commissioners meeting. The county and Gov. Kate Brown enacted an emergency declaration due to wildfires.

Evacuators from the McKenzie River fires line up for supplies at Thurston High School on Tuesday, Sept. 8, while American Red Cross assists. BRAD COOK/FOR THE CHRONICLE

Conditions will make rapid fire spread likely for the next two days; a red flag warning is in effect until Thursday. Winds are blowing smoke and ash from Holiday Farm throughout the area. 

The area has seen catastrophic damage, Mokrohisky said of Blue River, a small, close-knit community where everyone knows all their neighbors by their first name. 

With a population of just over 800 people, the town sits on the McKenzie River along Highway 126, between the communities of Finn Rock and Rainbow, in the Willamette National Forest where the Blue River dumps into the McKenzie. It is a popular destination for outdoor activities, and neighbors fear campers and other recreators were also trapped in the fire. 

“The fire was just coming on so fast,” said Rikki Estrada, who lives near Blue River Reservoir. She was at the Thurston High School respite center on Tuesday, eyes red from smoke and tears. She’s safe, but many are still missing, and many won’t have a home to go back to. One fire responder said Tuesday morning that it appears that 80 to 100 homes and businesses have been destroyed, with many others in the area expected to suffer the same fate. 

Black skies are stagnant through the Willamette Valley from the McKenzie River fires on Sept. 8. BOB WILLIAMS/FOR THE CHRONICLE

Poor visibility due to heavy smoke is making the assessment of damage and impacts difficult to gauge, Mokrohisky said. 

Blue River residents say the power shut off about 8:30 p.m. on Sept. 7. Living in a remote area with no cell phone service, many did not receive emergency notifications on their phones. Residents say they had no way of knowing there was a fire until it was at their doorstep. 

A Lane County Sheriff’s deputy zooms through the McKenzie River, just east of Walterville to assist in the wildfire efforts on Tuesday, Sept. 8. BOB WILLIAMS/PHOTO

“In a half an hour, we went from ‘Okay, well we haven’t lost any trees yet,’ to having 20-foot flames in front of our house and up against our windows, running from the flames that were chasing us,” said Estrada.

She was running for her life with the fire nipping at the back of her legs, she said; it was a matter of life and death. She and those she was with made it to their vehicles and took off. 

A scene from Thurston High’s respite center on Sept. 8. BRAD COOK/FOR THE CHRONICLE

Strong winds caused trees to fall, some over the roads, others over the powerlines and creating power outages. Rockslides, fire and debris blocked the roads. 

“We just got back onto Highway 126, coming from Sweet Home. We had babies with us; they were all scared, screaming ‘we’re going to die.’ We passed a car parked on the side of the road with a California license plate with a baby stroller next to it. All of us screamed at them to get out, and they made it to safety. “These shoes?,” she said, as she pointed to her feet. “The woman in that car gave me her shoes.”

Estrada’s shoes, gifted to her by another woman who was also in need. BRAD COOK/FOR THE CHRONICLE

A small fleet of neighbors’ vehicles found each other and trudged out of the woods out as fast as they could, cutting trees and fighting through debris as they made their way to safety.

“Five cars ended up with us as we escaped,” Estrada said. “If one of those cars weren’t there, we weren’t going to make it,” because, collectively in those five vehicles, they had enough straps, chains and hand saws to cut through the downed trees to escape. One less vehicle, Estrada said, and they wouldn’t have made it out. 

Tuesday on the McKenzie River, just east of Walterville. BOB WILLIAMS/FOR THE CHRONICLE

“We spent hours and hours dodging trees from the Blue River Reservoir, all the way up on gravel roads, praying that the gates weren’t locked,” Estrada said, noting that much of the roads in the area are closed and locked off due to Coronavirus restrictions. “We were amazed to get through those gravel roads alive.” 

“Within an hour, the whole mountain was gone,” she said. “We lost our animals. I lost my dog. We had to drive by our neighbors who had babies and leave them because there was no way we could stop or help. I had to drive by my best friend’s driveway; she was there with three babies and no lights.”

Sad eyes and a sad scene at Thurston High School respite site on Tuesday, Sept. 8. BRAD COOK/FOR THE CHRONICLE

Estrada had been prepping on her property for 10 years for a disaster such as this. 

“I have been growing gardens for years because we knew this was going to happen one day. I had food and water stored, just so (the neighbors) would have some place to go. Now I have nothing to offer them,” she said.

Melanie Stanley wears a lot of hats in Blue River, and is most affectionately known as “Aunt Mel.” She’s the “unofficial mayor of Blue River,” and the owner of Meyer’s General Store & Liquor at 51748 Cascade St. 

“We lost everything but we are OK,” she told Estrada as she hugged her tight as she wept. “We are Blue River. We are strong.”

Blue River residents Melanie Stanley hugs Rikki Estrada at Thurston High School’s respite center on Tuesday, Sept.8. BRAD COOK/FOR THE CHRONICLE 

Stanley was called in by the local fire district to help instruct evacuees because the American Red Cross was stuck on the other side of the fire, she said. “It wasn’t long before you could see the glow, and we were literally grabbing animals and getting everyone out” while a police vehicle drove around the town with a loud speaker calling for immediate evacuation. 

She thinks her family’s store — the original building from 1943 — is destroyed. The store had been in her family since 1992. 

The next step when the fire stops burning, Stanley said, is to come back home and “figure out what’s left. We’ll need to see who can and cannot rebuild. It’s going to be a lengthy clean-up process. And it’s going to be winter soon.”  

Blue River neighbors gather at Thurston High School on Sept. 8 after evacuating their homes due to wildfires. Many believe they will have nothing to come home to. BRAD COOK/FOR THE CHRONICLE

Emergency staging areas are being created and people are scrambling for somewhere to stay. 

Bill Spencer, owner of Creswell 76, said his son’s family evacuated Walterville on Tuesday morning, moving out their pets and other key belongings. “It’s an ugly, ugly thing,” he said.

He said that because of the fire danger, the station was averaging four 5-gallon cans per rig, with people using the fuel to fill generators. “It goes with fires and electricity outages,” he said. “It’s a snowstorm in the summer.”

Most hotels are booked up, said Thurston resident Mark Molina, who came by Thurston High to drop off breakfast tacos for the fire victims. His wife, Abigail Molina, made about six dozen breakfast tacos for the evacuees. He made Facebook live videos asking the community to respond, handed out breakfast, and “listened to their stories, shared in their pain and prayed with them.”

Benjamin Bryan, 35, of Vida, said after his shift at Everyone’s Market on Monday, he stepped outside Monday afternoon and noticed the air felt a different kind of heat on his skin. It wasn’t long before the ash began to rain down. He and his sister, Crystal, and father, Barry, all made it out, and his family is staying with friends in Cottage Grove, Bryan said. 

Benjamin Bryan, 35, of Vida, is happy to be evacuated safely after wildfires spread through out the area. BRAD COOK/THE CHRONICLE

Tina Oyervides, 57, of McKenzie River said she’s probably lost everything on her property. She and her family evacuated after seeing ashes falling down onto their house.

“I probably lost 27 years of stuff, but the property is still there. I can pitch a tent. I am still coming home. I can’t get down on it. I have to keep positive so I can keep others positive around me.” 

High wind, low humidity and low temperatures are expected for at least the next 24 hours.

“We’re not done with this yet,” Estrada said. “These natural disasters and stuff, we need to get it together. There are people up there with no electricity, and the notifications didn’t come through on our phones. There needs to be a warning or a signal to let people know that they don’t have power. Something needs to be done with that. That didn’t need to happen like that, that many casualties. There are people up there that we still don’t know if they made it.” 

Visit Chronicle1909.com for updates on this story. 

Dark skies in the Willamette Valley as the McKenzie River fire continue to spread. BOB WILLIAMS/FOR THE CHRONICLE

Updated Sept. 10, 3 p.m.



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