MILL CITY — Fred Girod stood near the edge of a steep drop between what remained of his house and the Santiam River, grasping the destruction days after the Beachie Creek wildfire destroyed homes, businesses and landmarks along the canyon.
The walls of the one-story home had collapsed, leaving two stone columns and a chimney that rose out of the rubble. The heat and flames had twisted the frame of the deck where he would sit to watch bald eagles, ospreys and sunrises.
Girod, 69, made an impromptu trip Sunday into his sprawling district that includes many of the most hard-hit areas decimated by wildfires that have now burned more than 1 million acres across the state and killed at least eight people.
“It hurts,” Girod said, hands in his dark denim jeans.
Girod had been turned away last week when he tried to reach his home near Mill City, population 1,900, one of the larger towns in the Santiam Canyon. But he was able to make it this day by heading north via Linn County.
“My job is to know what’s happening in the district,” Girod said. “I need to be able to assess the damage.”
He got help from Linn County Commissioner Roger Nyquist.
The men drove a loop through some of the towns in the evacuation zone, first going on the south side of the Santiam River through Lyons and Mill City, then crossing the river to Gates and then the northern half of Mill City on their way back to Salem.
As they passed through the Linn County countryside into the Cascade foothills, the two politicians talked about how to help people deal with the devastation. If they rebuild, can they keep their old property tax rates? Who will do the cleanups of all the toxic materials? How will kids go back to school or get any education?
They first passed through Lyons in Linn County, where a 13-year-old boy and his grandmother had died in a car at the family home trying to escape last Tuesday as fierce winds whipped fires into conflagrations.
Seven more miles took them to Mill City, straddling the border between Linn and Marion counties and divided by the river. The town’s mayor, Tim Kirsch, and city recorder Stacie Cook met them at City Hall.
Mill City appeared to suffer relatively little damage south of the river. That was thanks in large part to the work of a few dozen volunteer firefighters, loggers and a man with a caterpillar tractor, Kirsch said.
The volunteers had made their stand along a dirt road, now flanked on the right side by smoldering piles of debris and burnt trees and on the left side by large mounds of earth.
Girod and the others then headed five miles to Gates, stopping at a National Guard and Marion County Sheriff’s Office roadblock. They said were going into Marion County to assess the damage. The deputy took everyone’s IDs and, after handing them back, let the car through.
“Be safe,” a deputy said. “Do what you need to do and get out, OK?”
“We will,” Nyquist said.
A different scene awaited them.
“From here on out, it’s just complete devastation,” Kirsch said as they drove over the bridge to the north side of the river.
They stopped the car in front of the charred remains of a motel and trailer park. The metal sheeting of a roof lay on the ground next to burned-out cars, a metal swingset and thick clumps of ash mixed with dirt and debris.
Metal that melted and solidified appeared to leak out from car wheels. A mountain bike stood, mangled and stuck in the rubble.
Everything that burned was varying shades of brown, beige, gray or black. Cars sat with the wheels resting on the ground and seat springs showing.
A house across the road from what used to be the motel appeared unscathed, with only the surrounding trees blackened. Three chickens wandered out onto the road from the property and pecked at the gravel.
Girod leaned forward as the chickens approached him. “How did you guys survive?” he said.
His home was one of the last stops.
Girod walked around the house that his parents had built in 1968, a year before he finished high school.
The only recognizable items in the ash were a metal bed frame in what used to be his bedroom and a metal bowl for logs that stood on the fireplace mantle for logs. He doubts the three cats he left behind are alive — perhaps the toughest loss for him and his wife to bear.
He has yet to decide if he’ll rebuild. First, he’ll have to clean up the property, see what the insurance companies say and check the condition of the trees.
The remains of his Dodge diesel truck, recently in “cherry” condition, stood higher up the hill from his house.
“That’s my forever home,” Girod said. “That’s my forever truck.”