Santiam Canyon: From ‘collective trauma’ to ‘positive change’

Special Reports

Wildfire recovery for region targeted between 2023 and 2025

Signs of life are returning to the Santiam Canyon one year after devastating wildfires destroyed a large swath of Oregon. September 2021 (KOIN)

DETROIT, Ore. (KOIN) — One year ago, wildfires ripped through Santiam Canyon and the charred scars remain visible through the 35-mile stretch of Highway 22 in Marion County.

Immediately after the fires died down, crews worked tirelessly for months to provide necessities, like power and running water. Now, the focus is on rebuilding homes, neighborhoods and lives.

A total of 724 homes need to be repaired or replaced in Marion and Linn counties. Of those, about 340 — 47% — are in unincorporated territories. There are multiple challenges in rebuilding and different areas face different challenges.

In most cases it’s more difficult to quickly rebuild basic infrastructure needs, like sewage and power, in those areas.

Marion County Commissioner Danielle Bethell said the county is focused on all parts of the recovery but is honing in on those unincorporated areas like North Fork.

“They’re struggling because the, I mean, the fire was intense up there. I mean, the road melted in places, it was so hot and so fragile. They don’t have a city council,” Bethell told KOIN 6 News. “Our job as the county is trying to figure out how to create the path ahead as straight and efficient as possible to get folks back.”

Most glaring challenge: Cost

The damage was so severe and spread out counties are still working to assess the economic toll. The COVID-19 pandemic also played a part as prices of building materials spiked. Manufacturers had to close their doors.

In May, the price of lumber peaked at $1600-per-board foot, a 300% increase from the same time a year earlier.

Signs of life are returning to the Santiam Canyon one year after devastating wildfires destroyed a large swath of Oregon. September 2021 (KOIN)

Mill City Recorder Stacie Cook said skyrocketing costs for materials and being underinsured are affecting residents’ efforts to rebuild.

“They’re not having enough money to rebuild their homes and their garages or carports or whatever there might be on the property,” Cook said.

In Mill City the damage was less severe. But even then, Cook said the biggest challenge isn’t just the price of the material, it’s getting the material to the canyon.

“There’s a lot of manufactured homes here in town. People who had manufactured homes, even if they got orders in, they’re still looking at a year to 18 months out before they could get a delivery,” Cook said.

“It’s a canyon,” Bethell told KOIN 6 News. “So we don’t have up there the same types of resources and access. It’s much more expensive to take a load of lumber up to Detroit.”

Despite the challenges, progress

In Detroit, the new community center is nearly built. In Mill City, some homes are already rebuilt in a neighborhood that was burned down.

Bethell is one of many people working to help the neighborhoods rebuild as quickly as possible. The county, the state and the Santiam Canyon Long Term Recovery Group are working to create temporary housing in the next 6-8 months.

Signs of life are returning to the Santiam Canyon one year after devastating wildfires destroyed a large swath of Oregon. September 2021 (KOIN)

“We’re working on two models of short-term housing recovery models,” Bethell said. “We’ve identified two properties that we’re aggressviely working towards putting tiny homes and tiny cabins on for up to 3 years or for those individuals to be placed back in Oregon housing and community services.”

Bethell said her goal is to have almost everyone back in their permanent homes by 2023. The local economies will take longer — the hope is for 2025.

“I would say that’s a comfortable goal because there’s so much to what recovery looks like. It’s not just independently rebuilding homes, it’s rebuilding the cities and them getting to function with tourism and all the activities that existed before,” she said.

People are also rebuilding

As the Bull Complex Fire burns in nearby Breitenbush, many in the canyon worry about major fires being an annual occurence.

Idahna-Detroit Deputy Fire Chief Damon Faust said it’s critical the community not only works together but heals together. They rely on one another for support.

“We have this collective kind of trauma or scarring. It’s finding a way to be OK with that and allowing that moment to be a catalyst for positive change and for healing,” Faust said.

Resources

If you’re displaced from the fires and not sure what the next step is in rebuilding your home, call the Marion County Commissioner’s Office at 503.588.5212.

There is also the Santiam Canyon Long Term Recovery Group

And there is the Marion County Wildfire Recovery Resources

Another recovery part is the clean up. The Oregon Department of Transportation said they continue to clear hazardous trees in the area. ODOT officials said they expect to be done with that by the end of 2021.

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