Loss comes into view as fire still burns

Seventy-five Oregon National Guard airmen leave Portland Air National Guard Base at 9 a.m. Monday for the Echo Mountain Complex fire in northern Lincoln County. The airmen are manning barricades and providing other assistance to local agencies, and from Echo Mountain will disperse elsewhere as needed to aid wildfire mitigation efforts. Troy Hudson Sr., center, poses with his son, Troy Jr., and ex-wife, Autumn Hudson, after escaping the Echo Mountain fire. The trio was pushed progressively further west by successive evacuation orders after leaving Otis Tuesday afternoon, Sept. 8, driving through flames on following day as the conflagration reached Devils Lake.

LINCOLN COUNTY — Firefighters were able to start extinguishing the 2,552-acre Echo Mountain Complex fire on Tuesday, having established a control line around 100 percent of both the Echo Mountain and Kimberling Mountain areas of the blaze as of Monday evening.

Almost 600 personnel from agencies around the country were working the complex when firefighters reached the milestone in suppressing the blaze, which was first discovered late at night on Labor Day. The structure group was in the fire zone overnight and had yet to provide an update, Operations Section Chief Mike Carlson told responders at an early morning briefing before starting “mop up” work on Tuesday. Mop up is the tedious, labor-intensive task of digging for hotspots and extinguishing deep fuels from the perimeter in.

Three structural assessment teams were brought in from Idaho and are conducting a survey of properties lost and the monetary scope of the disaster. While no official assessment is in, an initial report from Oregon Emergency Management estimated 100 residences destroyed, and actual damages are widely expected to be much higher. The fire’s footprint, increased by about 100 acres overnight thanks to better aerial intelligence, not new burning, includes populated areas from east of Rose Lodge west to Northeast Highland Road in Lincoln City and south to the northeast corner of Devil’s Lake.

Realtor Freddy Saxton, president of the Lincoln County Board of Realtors, has estimated the final number of homes lost could be multiple triple figures, based on conversations with property owners who have incurred losses, videos and accounts posted to social media, and the density of some affected areas. “Panther Creek, which seems to have suffered significantly in the fire, alone has 716 tax lots,” Saxton said. “The scale of the loss is heartbreaking, and the need is so great. But one big bright spot has been how the community has really come together to meet that need.”

The board of realtors is collecting and distributing donations for evacuees in the IGA parking lot in Lincoln City, joining a countywide effort by government agencies, private organizations and individuals to feed, house and comfort as-yet unknown hundreds evacuated on Tuesday and Wednesday. Churches and city councils moved swiftly to open up property to campers and provide services to displaced people. Most residents of Lincoln City were allowed to return to their homes last weekend, but thousands live in the corridor of Highway 18 with active fires still burning where evacuations orders are expected to remain in place for several days. Many will have nothing to go back to.

Fifteen employees at two Lincoln City hotels are being housed and fed at the lodging establishment as they await word on the condition of their homes. Diana Steinman, director of operations for VIP Hospitality, which owns the Coho Oceanfront Lodge and Inn at Wecoma, as well as the Inn at Nye Beach, said, “Though we don’t have confirmation about property losses, we do know our employees, their families and pets are all safe. Thank God they’re all safe. We’re making sure they have food and a place to stay as we wait for what comes next.”

When their section of Lincoln City was evacuated Wednesday, Steinman said, the Inn at Nye Beach took in employees and guests from its northern properties, and also took in overflow evacuees from the Newport Recreation Center, which sheltered 250-plus at times through its closing Sunday afternoon. Since reopening Saturday with a phased approach, the Lincoln City hotels have also lodged evacuees processed through the Red Cross’ new emergency headquarters at the Lincoln City Recreation Center, where Troy Hudson Sr., of Otis, registered for aid on Monday, six days after first being told he had to leave his home.

Hudson said Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office deputies first came to his residence off of Panther Creek Road on Tuesday afternoon (Sept. 8) to tell them to get ready to leave if the threat increased, and within two hours deputies were back, announcing over a loudspeaker that the fire was just blocks away. Hudson loaded up his son, Troy Jr., and two dogs and picked up his ex-wife to head west, the first of three harrowing escapes from approaching flames. At 2:30 a.m., Hudson said, they were told again to flee west, and they left his friend’s house near the fish hatchery to a spot near East Devils Lake. “Again, we thought we were safe, and lo and behold, we started seeing thick smoke, and the sheriff told us again it was a mandatory evacuation with very little time,” he said. “Getting to the casino (an initial evacuation point) was quite the ordeal. We went through such thick smoke, and at the end of Devils Lake we actually had flames on both sides of the car,” a horrifying experience for his son, who is autistic and now describes himself as suffering from “fire phobia.”

Hudson said he arrived at Chinook Winds too late to receive a lodging voucher — the casino was later itself evacuated — and found the next staging point, Taft High School, already full. He then took a three-hour car ride to Newport and camped in the Walmart parking lot for two days before getting a room at the Travelodge through Sunday. He applied for lodging assistance in Lincoln City late Monday morning, and his group of three had just enjoyed a meal purchased with the last of their change when he spoke to the News-Times at about noon. He was in a hotel room about an hour later.

Hudson is exhausted by his ordeal but heartened by the response inspired by the tragedy. “Evacuating was frantic, and you knew everyone was sort of at a breaking point from all the conflict during the past few months. But since this fire, I haven’t seen anyone get angry or yell at someone over politics,” he said, and public generosity has been overwhelming. He said he’d found plentiful supplies and food at the board of realtors donation station. 

Hudson still doesn’t know if his home survived the fire — his neighbor’s home was still standing but not habitable due to smoke damage, he said — but he’s eager to get back to his land and help rebuild his community, where he’s lived for 17 years. He wants to find a small travel trailer to set up on his lot from which he can help facilitate recovery efforts.

The sheriff’s office is conducting spot checks on residences though an online request form or the county call center (they’d received 300 requests by Monday afternoon) while the structural assessment teams complete their work. Highway 18 and several arterial roads remained closed and Pacific Power still listed almost 1,500 meters without electricity in the Otis area on Tuesday afternoon. 

The ongoing effort to extinguish the flames, remove dangerous trees and debris, and restore access to neighborhoods involved 594 people as of Monday night, according to ODF spokesperson Jamie Knight, including personnel from Arizona, Idaho, Kansas, South Dakota and Wyoming. Oregon National Guard and Air Guard soldiers have been flown in to man barricades and provide other assistance. The fire is listed as 33 percent contained as of Tuesday morning — containment numbers are updated once a day in the evening, Knight said.

A post to an official Facebook page for the incident explained how the fire could be 100 percent lined but 33 percent contained. “We base our containment numbers on the amount of fire line that has been mopped up, snagged, and is clear of hazards that could cause the fire to threaten the line again. Mop up takes several days of labor intensive work; putting out burning materials, cooling hot ash-pits, and cold trailing by hand. Once they’re sure that section of line is ‘safe,’ it will be called contained,” the post reads. 

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