SISTERS — An unnaturally red sun burned through thick smoke near Sisters on Friday evening, and a heavy stench of burning wood filled the air as a steady stream of cars fled the still-uncontained Milli Fire.
Between 15 and 20 people had checked into a Red Cross evacuation shelter at Sisters Middle School by 8 p.m., about two hours after officials ordered mandatory evacuations for many residents living west of town. The total number of displaced people is most likely 10 times as many, but most opt to stay with nearby family or friends instead of sleeping on cots in a school gym, said Alaina Mayfield, Red Cross disaster program manager for Central and Eastern Oregon.
“We were shooting to be prepared for at least 40 people,” Mayfield said.
A group of 10 people and three dogs driving from Salt Lake City, Utah, to Lincoln City for Monday’s solar eclipse pulled into the Sisters Middle School parking lot shortly after 7 p.m.
The group had made a camping reservation two months ago at the only open lot on a campground just outside of Sisters along state Highway 242, only to find the road closed and blocked by law enforcement officers with flashing lights, Salt Lake City resident Michelle Lener said.
“Now we’re trying to find somewhere to stay,” she said.
One of the eclipse travelers, Jason Smurthwaite, said he checked on fires and road closures about a week before the trip and was watching updates on the Milli Fire during the day Friday.
“I could see it growing and growing,” he said.
The fire, burning 6 miles west of Sisters and about 1½ miles southwest of Black Crater Lake since Aug. 11, grew dramatically overnight Wednesday from 260 to 4,565 acres in the Three Sisters Wilderness. By Friday night, officials estimated it had burned 7,000 acres. About 600 people have been evacuated.
Paul Tinsley, 42, who lives with his wife and their four boxers in a tent near Elm Street, said he learned how bad the fire was late Friday evening when a police officer told him he had to leave immediately.
“I told him, ‘You’re asking me to leave everything I have, which other people might come by and pillage,’” Tinsley said. “He said, ‘It’s your stuff or your life.’”
This is the second time Tinsley has had to evacuate for a fire — he lost everything he owned several years ago in a wildfire near Spokane, Washington. The Missouri native relocated to California briefly after that, but has been living in Sisters for more than a year. Fire danger is a small price to pay for the town’s proximity to the Pacific Crest Trail, he said.
Sisters resident Ryan Seeley sat in his pickup truck in the middle school parking lot, with Tinsley’s four dogs — Joker, Violet and their puppies Junior and Molly — licking at his face and a flat trailer behind the truck ready to help whoever else he could.
“It’s scary,” he said. “All I can think about are the people in the rural areas.”
Seeley said he’s come across plenty of fires while hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, but none has been quite as large or uncontained as the Milli Fire. People he knows are starting to leave, and he said his wife, who works at the city’s parks and recreation department, told him parents had been taking their kids from summer camp and leaving town.
“I’ve done a lot of hikes near wildfires,” Seeley said. “I’ve seen a lot of fires, but I’ve never seen a fire like this. Seeing it up in flames right now and threatening our little town, it’s scary.”
Tinsley and his wife could stay at the middle school, which was set up with cots, showers, a 24/7 snack table and meals provided by the Salvation Army, but their four dogs had to sleep several miles away, at the Sisters rodeo grounds.
Six dogs, two cats, two horses and a box turtle had been checked into the pet and animal evacuation center by Friday night, said Jamie Kanski, regional coordinator for Pet Evacuation Team. She anticipates more livestock arriving and has spots ready for them as well.
Pets come in with their owners and pose for pictures as part of their intake. Then they’re separated into their own areas, with dogs in individual kennels, cats and the box turtle’s aquarium in a trailer and horses and livestock in corrals. An audible keening came from one dog kennel as Pet Evacuation Team volunteers took down information about Tinsley’s dogs.
“It’s very stressful for them being away from their owners and with all the smoke, so we just try to get them settled,” Kanski said. “It’s very hard on the owners, too. They’re under so much stress being evacuated and away from their homes.”
Back at Sisters Middle School, the Utah crew received permission to set up their tents and campers in the grass near the gym before heading on toward the Oregon Coast on Saturday morning. They had just finished putting up tents when the school’s sprinklers turned on, drenching their makeshift camp with water desperately needed a few miles west.
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