As fire crews start surveying the damage wrought by the Holiday Farm Fire, they are finding homes and businesses on Cascade Street in Blue River in ruin with some areas still smoldering a week after the blaze raced through the McKenzie Valley.
Many residents evacuated the area fearing their homes would be destroyed by the fire. Videos showing the destruction have been shared on social media, confirming the extensive damage in the area.
But a first-hand account from a Tuesday tour of Blue River offered additional details to the ferocity with which the fire tore through the area.
Molten glass streaks down the front of an old bus. Burned-out vehicles line the street. Appliances stand upright in the square foundations surrounded by heaps of ashes that were once the walls of homes. The eagle announcing the entrance to McKenzie High School still stands.
In addition to search and rescue, Wednesday marked another day of steady fighting of the fire, which reached 170,637 acres as of Wednesday morning. But firefighters had pushed the needle slightly toward containment at 8%, according to Oregon State Fire Marshal spokesperson Brian Richardson.
That was up from about 166,000 acres and 6% containment the day before. There were 783 people fighting the fire Wednesday.
The high school in Blue River is the staging ground for FEMA’s search and rescue operations that are reporting on the condition of structures and providing that information to local authorities who are using that information in their damage assessments.
So far, an 80-person search and rescue team has assessed about 75% of the 1,018 structures in the area as of Wednesday, according to the Oregon Department of Forestry. Of those, the search and rescue team has found that 503 were destroyed, nine are failed (meaning they’re high risk and could suddenly collapse), and 28 were damaged. There was no damage to 230 of those assessed structures.
Search and rescue operations
With Lane County Sheriff’s Office reporting six people still missing Tuesday from the 200 unaccounted for in the Holiday Farm Fire, FEMA’s 80-person Urban Search and Rescue Team began their efforts in the fire-affected area early this week.
After the federal emergency declaration, Oregon received three task forces that were dispatched to Lane, Marion and Jackson counties. The team for the Holiday Farm Fire is broken into smaller squads of about 10 and are conducting operations in Blue River and along the Highway 126 corridor.
On Elk Creek Road above Blue River, Washington Task Force 1 dog handler Keith Davis guided Asher, a golden retriever, over the remains of a home Tuesday afternoon. The dog deftly made his way over the twisted tin roof but after a thorough search returned to Davis without indicating any trace of human remains.
“The canines are invaluable, obviously. We have a bunch of equipment that we can use, but the dogs can do a really rapid sense to see if they hit on anything,” said FEMA public information officer Neal Aspesi.
If a dog indicates there may be human remains in a structure, the team marks the spot with GPS and reports the location to local authorities who then conduct a further investigation, Aspesi said.
One-stop help for evacuees
As crews made progress on assessing structures, the county debuted a new centralized resource “one-stop shop” for evacuees at the Lane County Events Center.
Resources and information for evacuees — including the status of their homes and businesses in the assessed area — made its way toward consolidation Wednesday, too.
Lane County opened up a Multi-Agency Resource Center at the county fairgrounds this week, which is meant to be a one-stop shop for what people impacted by the fire could need.
“They’ve been already moved out of their own immediate community and are now here in the metro center at various different hotels,” Lane County Commissioners Chair Heather Buck said. “So we want to make it easy for them to get all the resources in one space.”
The center will be open from noon to 7 p.m. through Friday. Counselors will meet people at check-in when they arrive. Once they go inside the center, they’ll be able to find information including assessments of homes and other buildings, insurance help, veteran services, and senior and disability services, Buck said. McKenzie School District will be also at the center passing out Chromebooks for students.
Booths for resources are spread out to still account for distance between people, and the county is only allowing about 100 people inside the center at a time on account of COVID-19.
“But we know that there are thousands of individuals who are affected in the fire area and our hope is to see most of them come over the next three days,” said county spokesperson Devon Ashbridge.
Evacuation zones downgraded
The evacuation level for residents along Highway 126 from Camp Creek Road to the east side of Holden Creek Lane, including Deerhorn, has been reduced to Level 2 (“be set”).
The evacuation level remains at Level 3 (“go now”) for residents between milepost 19 and milepost 47 of Highway 126, Lane County announced in a news release.
The evacuation level for the east side of the Mohawk Valley has been reduced to Level 2 for all residents east of the Mohawk River, making the Mohawk Valley Level 2 throughout except where residents were already at Level 1 (“be ready”).
Residents who choose to return to the newly downgraded areas will be required to demonstrate their residential address and be aware that:
- Roads are open 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. to confirmed residents traveling to and from residences only.
- Roads are closed 7 p.m. to 9 a.m. to all non-fire related traffic.
- Roads may close to all traffic at any time if unsafe conditions are identified.
More resources expanding
The city of Eugene announced also on Wednesday it will open a second overnight smoke respite shelter at 717 Highway 99N, which will be run by St. Vincent de Paul. This is for people experiencing homelessness in the community and will have a capacity of 16 people.
This respite shelter is in addition to the 24/7 respite center at the Lane County Fairgrounds, which will be open until 8 a.m. Friday. People looking for access to the respite centers must go through White Bird Clinic, which is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.at 341 E. 12th Ave., or people can call the 24-hour crisis line 541-687-4000.
Contact photographer Andy Nelson at [email protected], and follow him on Twitter @apnelsonphotos and Instagram @apnelsonphotos. Contact reporter Jordyn Brown at [email protected] or 541-338-2203, and follow her on Twitter @thejordynbrown and Instagram @registerguard.
This article originally appeared on Register-Guard: Focus shifts to assessing damage, supporting Holiday Farm Fire evacuees