MILL CITY, Ore. (KOIN) — The rain brought severely needed relief to Marion County as the two biggest wildfires in the state — Lionshead and Beachie Creek fires — continue to burn, but flash flooding is a real concern.
As the evacuation level was downgraded to Level 2, Mill City and Gates residents were able to go back home for the first time in more than a week. Some found things safe. Others had to sift through what was left.
Mill City Mayor Tim Kirsch told KOIN 6 News about 20 structures and homes were lost in the Beachie Creek Fire.
“Flash floods is typically not a big concern around here because this country was made to drain. Everything goes right to the river,” Kirsch said. “But that is also the problem. The rain could be washing out all of those toxins into the river.”
The other concern with the floods: Unstable hillsides that potentially could turn into landslides.
At 10 a.m. on Friday, the Marion County Sheriff’s Office announced evacuation levels for Mill City and Gates have been reduced to Level 2 “Be Set.” As they reopen, Highway 22 will remain closed between Highway 226 and Mile Post 29, near the west end of Mill City. The four-mile section of Highway 22 between Mill City and Gates will be open for travel.
The areas immediately to the north of Mill City and Gates remain at Level 3 “Go Now” evacuations.
LEVEL 3 “GO”: Detroit, Idanha, Breitenbush, North Fork Road north of Highway 22, Highway 22 east of Highway 226.
LEVEL 2 “BE SET”: Mill City, Gates, Lyons, Mehama west of Highway 226, Fernridge Road west of Shellburg Creek Road to Basil Hill, Crooked Finger Rd and Moss Lane
LEVEL 1 “GET READY”: Scotts Mills, areas east of Meridian Rd, Davis Creek and Victor Point south to the Marion County line
Rain assists Beachie Creek Fire efforts, hazards remain
Fire crews are evaluating how the overnight rainstorms affected the ongoing wildfires operations in Marion County on Friday morning.
The Beachie Creek Fire burning east of Salem remains one of the largest wildfires in Oregon. The inferno is a little more than 192,000 acres in size and is currently at 20% containment. Officials have been keeping a close eye on the weather developments as they proceed with their efforts.
Beachie Creek Fire Public Information Officer Scott Owen told KOIN 6 News the rain is helpful in putting out some hot spots. It also increases the relative humidity around the fire — meaning the flames burn less quickly. He said that allows firefighters to get out there with a chance to mop up those smoldering areas.
However, Owen said they are a bit concerned about what the rain means in terms of debris flow.
“As the fire burned, it burned pretty hot and pretty quickly through a big area,” he explained. “As the wind comes up through the thunderstorms and rain, the root system is no longer there for a lot of these trees or the bushes. Those are what hold the soil into steep slopes — if it rains hard, the soil will not be able to stay up there. The water will run rocks and mud down the hill and that would be a debris flow.”
Owen said officials are a little bit concerned due to the resulting number of hazards out there on the roads and through the forests.
“We want everyone to be careful,” he said.
In terms of further containing the Beachie Creek blaze, a prolonged period of rain is needed to reach 100%. However, the amount of rain seen Thursday night and into Friday morning has already improved the air quality around the region.
Meanwhile, the nearby Lionshead Fire continues to grow and is now listed at 192,719 acres — making it the largest wildfire in the state. Crews currently have it at 10% containment.
Incident Commander Randy Johnson said the battle against the Lionshead Fire was fairly quiet Thursday night as crews strengthened containment lines. With the weather transition, however, progress could slow in some areas.
Johnson said this blaze is “going to be around for a long time” — likely until the end of the fire season.
While law enforcement is still limiting access to the Santiam Canyon, Detroit and Idanha residents can request a check on their property by calling 503.798.6823 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. any day of the week. They should provide the following information when they call: Name, address, phone number, information about anyone missing from the location, and any animals at the location.
To report a family member missing, please contact the non-emergency dispatch at 503.588.5032. As of Sunday morning, the Marion County Sheriff’s Office said they have five people who have been reported as missing.