In the smoke-filled Santiam Canyon on Friday, multiple law enforcement agencies stood watch to protect property from looters and keep the public away from portions of the evacuation zone that remain unsafe.
Several days after the Beachie Creek Fire roared through the area, there was still plenty of work to keep them busy.
Late Friday morning, Linn County Sheriff's Deputies Rachael Poore and Colin Pyle joined Senior Deputy Burk Brandt for an impromptu briefing at a roadblock at the intersection of Highways 22 and 226 in Mehama, one of several Santiam Canyon communities evacuated during the blaze. It was Brandt's first patrol after coming off vacation, and his two colleagues quickly brought him up to speed.
On Thursday, deputies from Marion and Linn counties arrested two men for looting after people reported spotting them in the Idanha and Detroit areas.
A local resident at the roadblock thanked Brandt for his agency's swift action in helping to make those arrests. Brandt responded with a thumbs up as he headed to his patrol car to continue his patrol.
“We are really trying to flood the area,” said Linn County Sheriff Jim Yon. The Sheriff’s Office is using up to four deputies in the area to patrol in 12-hour shifts.
Roadblocks have been set up throughout the area, including one at each bridge that crosses the Santiam River. The checkpoints are staffed by Marion County sheriff's deputies and Oregon Department of Transportation employees.
Before reaching the roadblocks, returning residents must first stop at the intersection of Highway 226 and W, McCully Mountain Drive at a roadblock run by the Oregon State Police. There, a state trooper checks IDs before allowing them to proceed into the Level 3 evacuation zone.
“They are identifying those who are going in so if something bad happens, we know who is in there,” Yon said. “If the conditions change, we might not be able to get to you.”
In Mill City, Brandt joined Pyle to check an open door at Santiam Cottages. After making sure no one was in the residence or the backyard, Pyle took a moment to look at a pair of chimneys towering above the rubble of a historic home facing Alder Street.
Next door, another historic home remained untouched.
On Kingwood Drive east of Mill City, two neighbors wearing sidearms helped James Spencer clear a tree from his driveway.
One of the neighbors, Kyle Woodley, paused to check in by phone on a rumor that a new fire had started in the area. Woodley, who runs a private water tender, would have gone to fight the blaze, but it turned out to be a false alarm. “I hate Facebook,” he said.
As the day wore on, the deputies stayed busy running checks on suspicious cars, attempting to track down suspicious persons and responding to other calls for service from residents and workers throughout the Santiam Canyon.
On the other side of Linn County, the Sherriff’s Office is conducting similar patrols in the evacuation area of the Holiday Farm Fire, with assistance from two other local law enforcement agencies. Currently, three officers from the Albany Police Department and two officers from the Sweet Home Police Department are pitching in on patrols between Crawfordsville and Sweet Home.
While some portions of the fire zones have been deemed safe to re-enter, it's too soon to predict when everyone who was forced to evacuate might be allowed to return and check on their property.
“We understand people want to get back to their homes,” Yon said. “We ask the public to try to be patient and try to understand where we are coming from.”