Misery and Miracles

As communities in rural Oregon grapple with unimaginable tragedy from deadly wildfires, electric co-ops band together to restore power—and hope.

By Ted Case

Smoky area with burned down structures.
The staggering fire damage in Detroit, where preliminary numbers suggest 75% to 80% of structures are destroyed.
Photo by Thomas Elzinga

On the evening of Monday, September 7, 2020, the power went out at the home of Steve and Kathy Keable, who live in the town of Blue River, in the McKenzie River Valley outside of Eugene. They saw a glow across the river, and Kathy—a director at Lane Electric Cooperative—checked a scanner app on her phone. The Holiday Farm Fire was fast approaching.

After alerting neighbors—and with embers raining down on their property— the Keables grabbed their cats and fled to an evacuation site near Eugene.

They were not alone.

That evening, thousands of Oregonians across Western Oregon had similar stories as deadly wildfires—fanned by east winds and a drought-stricken landscape—created a path of unprecedented destruction. The fires, which have scorched more than 1 million acres throughout the state, spanned from the state’s southern border to the coast and just outside of Portland.

Rural areas served by Oregon’s electric cooperatives in the mid-Willamette Valley faced significant damage, not only from fires but from high winds that caused widespread outages.

At a press conference on September 9, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown announced the conflagration “could be the greatest loss in human lives and property in our state’s history.”

She said the towns of Detroit, Blue River, and Vida, which included full or partial-service by electric cooperatives, were “substantially destroyed.” At least eight Oregonians were killed in the fires, with a dozen still missing.

Blue River Reservoir in Lane County.
Photo by Zechariah English

Leaders of Consumers Power Inc., based in Philomath, knew early on there was significant damage to the community and the co-op’s infrastructure in the Santiam Canyon, which includes the community of Detroit, a small tourist community east of Salem.

As the Beachie Creek Fire raced through their territory, covering about 500 feet a second, CPI CEO Roman Gillen gave a sobering account of the situation.

We’re not sure we have any customers up there to serve,” he said.

When CPI crews were allowed to enter the Detroit area, they found what was described as a war zone, with few structures left standing. A crucial substation, however, survived the blaze after a Caterpillar created a fireline around the perimeter.

CPI immediately set out to restore power to the area and put out the call for additional crew from Oregon co-ops.

“The response was immediate and tremendous,” Gillen said, as linemen from Salem Electric, Midstate Electric, Oregon Trail Electric, and Hood River Electric cooperatives arrived to help.

Just more than a week later, power was restored to the area.

“This is nothing short of a miracle,” Gillen said.

Lane Electric faced a similar catastrophe in the McKenzie River Valley. Shocking video footage showed the town of Blue River reduced to ash, rubble, and twisted metal as the Keables waited for news of their home.

The co-op’s focus on restoring power to their members ran headlong into the forces of wind and fire.

“There are broken poles like I’ve never seen before,” said Lane CEO Debi Wilson, noting that restoring electricity was difficult even days later when “parts of our system are still on fire.”

Lane Electric, along with two other electric co-ops—Blachly-Lane and West Oregon—also faced a new reality that made it difficult to fulfill their mission to keep the lights on: Energized power lines could exacerbate the situation if trees, felled by wind or fire, fell into the lines.

The co-ops deliberately shut off power to keep their communities safe.

Less than a week after the fires, Lane Electric brought a 2-megawatt generator into the McKenzie River Valley, navigating a small state highway with debris and logs breaking loose from the hillside.

With line crews operating in warm temperatures and the worst air quality in the world—during a pandemic—Lane Electric was able to energize all of its lines east of Blue River, a full day earlier than expected.

“We are incredibly proud of our staff and crew for the ‘can-do’ attitude and grit that made this all possible,” Lane Electric tweeted on September 15.

State officials said more than 500 homes and buildings were destroyed by the Holiday Farm Fire.

Days after the fire swept through the McKenzie River Valley, Steve and Kathy Keable received confirmation that while other homes in their area had been incinerated, their home had survived the fire.