David Phelps was counting on the Marion County Sheriff’s Office to tell him if his family had to evacuate, but he wasn’t that worried. At that time, the Beachie Creek fire was miles to the east.
Earlier on the Monday of the Labor Day holiday, a deputy told him the fire wasn’t likely to get that far. And if it did, deputies would come knocking on doors and blaring evacuation orders from their cruisers.
Then around 1 a.m., Phelps woke up to the sound of a distant siren, followed by an ominous silence. Downstairs, the house was filled with smoke and outside the sky was raining hot ash. As the family quickly packed to leave, they saw the house next door go up in flames.
Those neighbors had fled just minutes earlier – alerted by an emergency call to their landline that Sue Trummel just happened to hear ring downstairs. She’s always been a light sleeper, she said.
About the same time just down the road, Karen Stai had awoken to a knock on the door. Emergency lights flashed blue and red outside and someone with the Sheriff’s Office said they had to go – now.
Karen and Bob Stai threw their things into two cars and drove out to Oregon 22, the main road winding through the forested canyon along the Santiam River east to Salem. They followed deputies who were stopping to knock on other people’s doors.
Yet another neighbor, Scott Torgeson, later woke to an explosion coming from a nearby house. His car got stuck on a fallen tree as he fled. He jumped out and ran four miles until he found help. He suffered third-degree burns on his arms and legs and was picked up by a man who had blown through a blockade in search of his family.
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All four lived on Dogwood Lane Southeast, a gated neighborhood northeast of Lyons. Their only cell service in the backwoods was through the internet — and all of them lost power around 7 p.m.
Similar scenes of chaotic warnings and last-minute flight played out across western Oregon as historic wildfires devastated 1 million acres of forest in simultaneous infernos fed by winds howling through from the east. At least nine people have died since Sept. 7.
For all the many tales of selfless rescuers who sounded alarms and worked to evacuate residents in danger zones, there seems to be a matching one of miscommunication or missed notifications.
People forced to run in the Beachie Creek fire have described disarray – some said they got official evacuation messages long after they left. Some got no bulletin at all after signing up to get alerts by phone. Others said they didn’t know they should even be prepared to leave. Still others said they never got a knock on the door from sheriff’s deputies or heard any loudspeaker announcements from passing police cars.
The problems weren’t limited to Marion County. In Jackson County, authorities never sent out an alert at all, according to local news reports. In Clackamas County, a woman said she was glued to her phone, waiting for an alert, only to learn from her son’s friend that she had to leave immediately. A Lincoln County resident said she got an alert on her phone when a fire was just two streets away from her home.
State officials are now grappling with figuring out what worked and what didn’t.
Emergency notifications may have gotten to people late because of downed cellphone towers and power lines, they said. Some people had no reception at all. In other cases, people may have intentionally deactivated emergency messages, officials said.
But overall, thousands of people successfully evacuated who would have died if they stayed in their homes, said Andrew Phelps, director of the Oregon Office of Emergency Management. He is no relation to David Phelps.
Oregon hasn’t experienced the mass fatalities that Gov. Kate Brown had prepared people to expect as the wildfires torched entire communities.
“Right now, indications are folks got out,” Andrew Phelps said.
Nothing is off the table as Oregon considers how to move forward, he said, including developing a statewide emergency messaging system. For now, it’s up to local agencies to decide when to send alerts and what those warnings say.
“There are components of the system certainly that worked,” he said. “But as the state’s emergency management director, seeing a single fatality associated with a disaster in my state tells me something needs to change.”
KNOCK ON DOOR ‘SAVED MY BACON’
No single system can be the ultimate answer to making sure people know they need to get out, Phelps said. That’s why counties have multiple tools at their disposal, from door-to-door knocking to automated phone calls to text messages, he said.
The Beachie Creek fire had been burning for weeks in the Opal Creek Wilderness, but it was manageable, and firefighters had decided to let it burn – common practice in wildland firefighting.
And even with the forecast for fierce winds starting at the end of the holiday, fire officials didn’t predict those flames would spread from 500 acres to 131,000 in one day.
“We weren’t expecting it to get that big, that quickly,” said Scott Owen, a spokesman for the Beachie Creek fire command. “So, the warning probably wasn’t received by everybody in time.”
The residents on Dogwood Lane are among those who want to understand what happened.
The four families who experienced different degrees of alerts all survived, but the fire destroyed their homes.
They feel fortunate. A boy and his grandmother who died lived 1 ½ miles toward Mehama, on the same road the families took to get out. Two others — a mother and son — died about six miles east of their neighborhood.
One of the most pressing questions the neighbors have is why only one of them got a knock on the door from a deputy.
Bob Stai, 65, said that likely was the difference between life and death for his wife and him. “I credit them for saving my bacon,” he said.
Karen Stai, 65, said the deputies went up the road in the direction of their neighbors and came back about five minutes later to knock on their door again. The couple left almost immediately around 12:40 a.m., following several Sheriff’s Office vehicles in an impromptu convoy that broke up as deputies peeled off to knock on other doors.
Most of the neighbors in the community have talked since then, and the Stais appear to have been the only ones to hear a knock.
The Marion County Sheriff’s Office didn’t answer questions about their evacuation announcements in the neighborhood in the hours shortly after midnight Tuesday, Sept. 8.
“At a time when resources are stretched thin and we remain in a state of emergency, we have not yet had an opportunity to begin an after-action review of our response to the wildfires in Marion County,” spokesman Jeremy Landers said in an email.
AUTOMATED CALL ALERTED THEM
Fred and Sue Trummel, about a quarter mile up the road from Bob and Karen Stai, were the next to leave.
The Trummels had been told by David Phelps that there was little danger of the fire spreading to their neighborhood and a deputy would let them know if it was headed their way.
The couple didn’t bother packing up, but Fred Trummel, 59, did get a chainsaw ready to take care of tree limbs he expected to fall in the windstorm.
“We felt confident enough to go to sleep at night,” said Sue Trummel, 57.
She woke up around 12:30 a.m. to the landline ringing in the kitchen, she said. They had kept the phone in case of emergencies. She went downstairs and listened to the voice message.
It said they were in a Level 3 – go now – evacuation zone.
But the couple thought at first it was the least serious evacuation notice because of what the deputy had told Phelps, their neighbor. When they checked online just in case, they realized they had to get out immediately.
“If it hadn’t been for that automated call and us hearing it …” Sue Trummel said, pausing. “Yeah.”
Fred Trummel had signed up to get emergency messages only a few months earlier.
The two grabbed decades-old photo albums with pictures of their wedding and their children growing up. About a half-hour after getting the call, they drove off in the direction of their son’s house in Jefferson, between Salem and Albany.
They had to turn around because of a downed old-growth fir tree and go another way they never used, opening a gate and chain-sawing through smaller trees that also had fallen in the windstorm.
They passed David Phelps’ house. The family’s car was in the driveway, trunk open.
Fred Trummel hadn’t seen any flames as he threw his things together or as he drove west. He didn’t think there was any danger to the couple’s home. He was confident he’d be coming back, even tucking in some painting shorts and paint brushes to help his son with a project while they stayed for what he thought would be a few nights at most.
But knowing now what happened to their house so quickly after they left, Sue Trummel said she and her husband probably would have had to dash on foot down the road to try to escape the fire if they hadn’t gotten the call.
Even if they’d woken up before the fire engulfed their house, they wouldn’t have been able to get to their cars because the fire was approaching on the side where their garage was, she said.
“We would’ve just had to run for it in the opposite direction and hope we made it out,” she said.
FAMILY HEARD SIREN IN DISTANCE
David Phelps, 53, his wife, Carla, 53 and daughter Karley, 18, got out just moments after the Trummels.
They didn’t hear any knocks on the door. But both Phelps and his daughter heard sirens in the distance, he said, and the ashes falling outside seemed to have drops of red inside them.
Phelps recalled how he was still loading the car when the Trummels’ house burst into flames. They left by around 1:15 a.m.
About half an hour later, when both were driving west on Oregon 22, Phelps called Fred Trummel.
“Did you get out?” Phelps asked.
Yes, Fred Trummel said, then asked if Phelps and his family did, too.
“Yeah, we barely got out of the house, we’re safe,” Phelps replied.
“Your house is gone, Fred.”
“Oh no, are you serious?” Fred Trummel said. “Sue’s going to be sick.”
EXPLOSION WOKE HIM UP
Of the four households, Scott Torgeson was the last to leave.
Speaking from Legacy Emanuel Medical Center, his son, Erik Torgeson, described the ordeal his father went through to survive.
Scott Torgeson needed electricity to get cell service and for his landline phones to work. He had a generator, but he was already asleep when the power went out that night.
Then he heard an explosion, his son said. He thought it was his neighbor’s propane tank.
It was about 2:30 a.m. when Scott Torgeson ran down to his car and started to drive out. But he hit a downed tree and got stuck. He thought about going back to get his other car, Erik Torgeson said, but realized it almost certainly had already caught fire.
He had no choice but to run. Once within cell service, Scott Torgeson called 911 and asked for a rescue. He was told it wouldn’t happen, Erik Torgeson said his dad later told him.
So his dad ran four miles in the direction of Oregon 22 before a man desperately looking for his family passed by.
The man said he would pick up Torgeson on the way back. That man was Chris Tofte, who was searching for his 13-year-old son, wife and mother-in-law. Tofte found his badly burned wife, Angela Mosso, alive a short time later on the road but couldn’t make it back to the family’s house. The bodies of Wyatt Tofte and Peggy Mosso, 71, were discovered later that week in a car on the family’s property.
As Tofte raced back toward the blockade to get help for his wife, he stopped for Torgeson.
The flames had chased Torgeson, burning his legs and his arms as he held them up to protect his face from the fire.
Torgeson must undergo multiple surgeries to repair the damage. He remains in the hospital’s burn unit.
The father and son have been keeping busy. They recently watched “Field of Dreams” together and followed the U.S. Open. Scott Torgeson’s sister also has come to help.
Erik Torgeson said his father is angry, not only that he didn’t get a knock on the door but also that authorities didn’t come to rescue him.
But he’s alive, the son said.
“We will recover.”
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— Fedor Zarkhin