Travis Cook heard about wildfires spreading about 10 miles from his mother’s home in rural Marion County.
That was Labor Day. He called that evening. Cathy Cook told her son that the area was under a Level 2 evacuation order — be set to go at a moment’s notice. She was packed. All she needed, she said, was the signal from authorities to go.
An hour passed. Worried, Travis Cook called his mother again.
This time, the phone lines were down. A landline was the only connection; the area lacked cell service.
Cathy Cook ended up fleeing at some point later that night with son Justin, Travis Cook’s younger brother. Justin Cook had stopped working as a chef in the Corvallis area several months ago and moved in with his mother to care for her after surgery.
The two climbed into her Pontiac Grand Am with her three dogs — Caesar, Milo and Nikki — and steered down the half-mile gravel drive toward North Fork Road Southeast in Lyons.
They made it just 50 feet from the house.
Fire and the destruction it wrought made it difficult for search and rescue workers to reach Cook’s property. Trees had been tossed like toothpicks, blocking roads. Travis Cook said authorities reached the property Sept. 11, four days after the two tried to escape.
Their bodies were found outside of the car. Cathy Cook made it about 150 yards from the car. Justin Cook got just 50 feet. The fire had torched the area. A puddle of aluminum lay where the car’s tires should have been.
Most likely, Travis Cook said, they were running toward the creek that runs alongside the property.
Cathy Cook was 71. Justin Cook was 41.
Cathy Cook had lived on the property for 45 years. It had been built by her husband, Dave, and his father. Dave Cook operates a business in Bend and wasn’t home when the fire broke out.
Wildfire had never been a serious threat in the area, Travis Cook said. Rain is so common that his mother kept a rain gauge on her deck.
He said he wonders if emergency responders tried to reach his mom but found the line was dead. He said she would have fled if authorities advised her to go.
“I don’t think they made contact with her,” he said. “I think she probably ended up going to sleep.”
He’ll never know what happened. The what-ifs weigh heavily on him.
“If they had gotten the evacuation notice maybe even a half-hour earlier, who knows?” he said. “But I almost feel they would have made it.”
He suspects his mother and brother tried to get out later that night or early the next morning, but it was too late.
His mom was at home in the woods. If she spotted a spider, she took care to capture it and carry it into the surrounding forest, he said.
“She loved Mother Nature,” he said. “It was her oasis.”