By Dylan J. Darling

The Bulletin

Fire timeline

An early-morning thunderstorm sparked a dozen separate wildfires in the Malheur National Forest near John Day and Canyon City. Firefighters squelched all but the Mason Springs and Berry Creek fires, which grew to become the destructive Canyon Creek Complex Fire. The fire destroyed 43 homes, most in a massive flare-up two days after the fire started.

Aug. 12

Firefighters attack the Mason Springs and Berry Creek fires from the air and on the ground. Response includes a large air tanker, three single-engine air tankers, two helicopters with buckets, smokejumpers, three fire engines, two water tenders, a bulldozer and a 20-person hand crew.

2:06 p.m.: Line cut by the dozer, retardant dropped by the air tankers and hose laid by firefighters surround the Mason Springs Fire.

5:41 p.m.: Things looking good on the Mason Springs Fire so managers reassign helicopter to the Berry Creek Fire.

9:10 p.m.: A firefighter on the Berry Creek Fire suffers heat exhaustion. During medical response the fire flares up and all firefighters pull back as the fire spreads over containment lines.

Aug 13

8:28 a.m.: Firefighters estimate the Mason Springs Fire at 10 acres and the Berry Creek Fire at 50 acres.

10:30 a.m.: Hand crews reinforce lines around the Mason Springs Fire and build line at the Berry Creek Fire. Air tankers provide support for crews trying to contain the Berry Creek Fire.

2:04 p.m.: Firefighters find a spot fire 400 feet outside containment lines for the Mason Springs Fire.

2:40 p.m.: A helicopter with large water bucket responds to Mason Springs Fire.

3:04 p.m.: Two single-engine air tankers join the firefighting, helping fight both fires along with the helicopter.

5:32 p.m.: Dry Soda lookout, south of the fires, reports wind gusts to 26 mph and extreme fire activity.

5:50 p.m.: Mason Springs Fire starts more spot fires and moves across ridge.

That evening the Grant County Sheriff’s Office issues Level II evacuation warnings for homes along Canyon Creek, telling people to be ready to leave at a moment’s notice. By the end of the day the Mason Springs Fire crosses U.S. Highway 395 and has grown to 500 acres.

Aug. 14

By 10:35 a.m. winds increase to 30 mph. Both fires are very active and protecting homes becomes the main priority for firefighters. Evacuations ordered while large air tankers, another 20-person hand crew and local fire departments join firefighting.

By 12:02 p.m. a call for help goes out to all fire departments in Grant County, with 12 engines and 32 volunteers responding.

Between noon and 1 p.m.: Canyon City, John Day, Dayville, Mount Vernon, Prairie City, Monument and Long Creek fire departments all send crews to Canyon City. The mission is to guard homes.

Between noon and 6 p.m.: The Mason Springs and Berry Creek fires remain very active, merging into one and burning a combined 33,000 acres and destroying 39 homes.

Source: Malheur National Forest

CANYON CITY — Driving up Canyon Creek, south of John Day toward Burns, the devastation is dramatic.

The Canyon Creek Complex Fire tore through this canyon in mid-August, leaving the woods and community forever changed.

“This was so awesome in here before this,” Grant County Judge Scott Myers said Tuesday as he drove his pickup along U.S. Highway 395 through the canyon. For about 8 miles the highway cuts through where the wildfire burned and destroyed homes. Around each turn comes a shocking sight, remnants of once proud homes or homes that were somehow spared from the flames.

The Canyon Creek Complex Fire destroyed 43 homes, 39 in the canyon in a massive flare-up on Aug. 14. Another side of the fire blew up more than a week later, destroying another four homes. Now those who lost homes are weighing whether to stay and rebuild or leave the canyon and live elsewhere. Concerns about potential flooding factor into the difficult decision.

The destruction is some of the worst in Oregon history. By comparison, the Awbrey Hall Fire in Bend destroyed 22 homes in 1990 and the Skeleton Fire, also in Bend, destroyed 19 homes in 1996. The two Bend blazes had stood as the worst in terms of homes lost in the state’s modern history until the Canyon Creek Complex, Brian Ballou, a spokesman for the Oregon Department of Forestry, wrote in an email.

Back in 1936 a wildfire that likely started in smoldering logging slash spread into Bandon, on the Oregon Coast, he wrote, burning nearly every structure in town and killing 11 people.

The small size of Canyon City, the closest town to most of the homes lost to the Canyon Creek Complex Fire, amplifies the impact of the fire. A mining boomtown in the 1800s and still the Grant County seat, Canyon City has about 700 residents.

Three times in its history Canyon City has had to rebuild from disastrous fire, in 1870, 1898 and 1937, according to the Blue Mountain Eagle, John Day’s weekly newspaper. Those fires burned through the town’s business district. The Canyon Creek Complex Fire leveled homes scattered south of town in the scenic canyon.

For the people who lost homes, barns and more to the Canyon Creek Complex Fire, the past seven weeks have been a time to see what they can salvage and brace for wintry weather ahead. The same canyon that funneled the firestorm could churn with floodwaters this fall and winter, a worry also for people living along Canyon Creek whose homes did not burn.

“We are preparing for the next big rain, that is for sure,” said Myers, the rural county’s top elected official. “We have a lot of black dirt with nothing holding it.”

Lightning in the early- morning hours of Aug. 12 started a pair of fires that eventually burned together to form the Canyon Creek Complex Fire. The fire charred more than 172 square miles of land, over 110,000 acres, an area five times larger than the city of Bend.

Myers lives in the canyon south of John Day. The fire came within 300 yards, but his home survived. He has been in touch with about half of the people who lost homes. Their feelings about whether to rebuild in the canyon are split.

“It’s about 50/50 from those I’ve talked to,” Myers said.

Rebuilding

Andy Jones, 56, lived in a home just off the highway for 15 years. The house, built in 1941, had history. It was known locally as “Hank and Guernsey’s Place” after the couple who used to live there. Guernsey Pond, between the farmhouse and highway, long served as a community ice rink, with lights to allow for nighttime skating.

The home was likely the second house destroyed by the fire as it charged through the canyon, said Jones, an IT worker for the U.S. Forest Service. Flames charred cattails that surrounded the pond. While Jones and his wife have been living in Washington to care for his ailing mother-in-law, he said the couple plan to return to the canyon.

Walking around the blackened, ash-covered ground where his home once stood he said Wednesday that he and his wife plan to rebuild. “We are looking at it that we got to start a new book,” Jones said. “… We are hoping that someday we’ll be able to live here again.”

When they do he said it will likely be up the hill, to be away from the Canyon Creek and the flood danger, and to have a view of Canyon Mountain. The broad, rocky-topped mountain towers over the surrounding burnt woods.

Moving on

Since 1975, Arlen Van Nice, 80, lived in a home along the highway, in the canyon. He and his wife were out Wednesday at what was left of their home. Two weeks into cleaning up the couple were still sorting out scrap metal and hoping to find anything salvageable.

“You keep thinking you’ll find something, and you don’t,” Van Nice said. “Everything is gone.”

He had a small collection of items pulled from the ashes, mostly for sentimental reasons, in the back of his pickup.

“That’s my skinning knife,” Van Nice said, holding out a handle-less blade dulled by the fire. “I don’t think it will skin any more elk.”

The Van Nices have an acre of land along the highway. Before the fire it was lush and eight to 10 deer would pass through daily. Now that the woods are gone, the couple will be too.

Van Nice said they plan to move somewhere else. Where?

“Someplace green,” he said.

Undecided

Dean Elliot, 86, does not know yet whether he’ll rebuild where his old home stood or move to a new spot.

He lived in a home along Canyon Creek for 53 years. His big concern is the flood and mud that will likely come down the creek during heavy rain and snowmelt.

Elliot and other locals are quick to mention the flooding of 2011, which damaged Grant Union High School downstream in John Day. They predict floodwaters could be worse this year due to the size of the fire.

For now, Elliot and his wife, Betty Elliot, are staying in a rental in Canyon City.

“(The rental is) all furnished,” he said. “It even had elk meat in the freezer.”

Other damages

Along with 43 homes the Canyon Creek Complex Fire destroyed at least 10 outbuildings, according to the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center, which organizes wildland firefighting around the Northwest. Outbuildings include barns, garages, sheds and other structures. While such structures may seem small on paper, their loss can be big for the people who had them.

A signature silver barn used to tell people passing by on Highway 395 that they were at Deer Creek on the Berry Creek Ranch. The historic barn is gone, and that’s just the beginning of the damage at the 400-acre ranch.

The fire also destroyed fence line and timber, said Gordon Larson, 51, a retired Oregon State Police commander who owns the ranch with his family. He’s lived there since 1996 and since retiring in 2014 had looked forward to spending more time working on the land.

Cruising the ranch in a John Deere Gator Wednesday, he stopped to point out where the Berry Creek Fire — one of the two fires that became the Canyon Creek Complex Fire — began and then all the damage it did.

“This ranch has been our entire life,” he said. “(It was) really hard to see it burn.”

He feels for his neighbors who lost their homes. While much of the ranch was left in ruin, at least his home and the new home under construction on the ranch survived the fire.

A member of the school board, Larson said he is proud to be a part of Canyon City and the greater area of John Day. He and his family have no plans to leave. They will rebuild the ranch.

“I’m not giving up on John Day,” Larson said. “I’m not giving up on this canyon. I’m not giving up on ranching.”

One of his neighbors is Judi Stimac , 72, who has lived in the canyon since 1999. Her house also remains standing, but she lost a barn, workshop and log cabin. The fire also destroyed her “campsite,” a spot where she and her partner, Mike Nault, 71, would host barbecues for friends and family.

The campsite was up the hill from her home, tucked into the woods they held dear. During a walk around the property Nault looked up at blackened snags lining a ridge.

“We will never live long enough to see the tress (like they were),” he said. “They grow real slow.”

The couple were doubly affected by the fire. Nault has a home on Pine Creek, near where the second group of homes were lost to the Canyon Creek Complex Fire. His house stands, but flames took his water system and other crucial equipment for his off-the-grid home.

Closer to Canyon City, Eva Harris, 73, is among the people who counts herself lucky. She lost her old horse barn and a storage building, but not her home of 45 years.

She has talked to her neighbors who did lose homes about their plans. One family, the Foxes, are quickly rebuilding.

“There are other people who need more time,” she said. “They just need more time to regroup and rethink.”

Going up fast

The frame for the Foxes’ new foundation was already in place Wednesday and concrete was set to be poured by week’s end.

“We would like to be in it by Christmas,” said Dean Fox, 51, who owns the Pioneer Feed & Farm Supply stores in Burns and John Day.

His wife, Courtney Fox, 33, said they had no choice but to rebuild; it’s their property.

They are also quick to vent their frustrations about how the Malheur National Forest handled the Canyon Creek Complex Fire. Dean Fox said he is checking with his neighbors to see if there is interest in a class-action lawsuit.

“They should have put it out,” he said, standing Wednesday where his old home burned to the ground and his new home is being built.

Firefighters tried to keep the Mason Springs and Berry Creek fires small, but strong winds fanned the fires and caused a massive flare-up on Aug. 14, the day most of the homes were destroyed, said Steve Beverlin, supervisor for the Malheur National Forest.

In about six hours that day the fire burned more than 50 square miles of land, over 33,000 acres.

“You can’t get in front of a fire that burns 33,000 acres in a day and hope to stop it,” he said. “It is just too extreme.”

Beverlin said three U.S. Forest Service employees lost their homes in the fire. Courtney Fox sums up what is evident in a drive up the canyon, from John Day headed to Burns.

“Forty-three homes in a community this size is a huge impact,” she said.

— Reporter: 541-617-7812, ddarling@bendbulletin.com

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