A jet drops retardant near Ashland Sept. 8 to slow a fire that destroyed the small towns of Talent and Phoenix. Local Catholic parishes are so far unharmed and are welcoming evacuees. (Marc Salvatore/Catholic Sentinel)
A jet drops retardant near Ashland Sept. 8 to slow a fire that destroyed the small towns of Talent and Phoenix. Local Catholic parishes are so far unharmed and are welcoming evacuees. (Marc Salvatore/Catholic Sentinel)

The foothills of Oregon’s Cascade Mountains erupted in flame Sept. 7-8, creating red apocalyptic skies and leaving a handful of small towns in ashes. There were 10 confirmed deaths as of this posting, with more feared.

A rare storm with hot winds gusting to 55 miles per hour turned the usual summer smolders into orange monsters. The squalls also created new fires by blowing down power lines. Historically dry forests fed the flames, which could be seen clearly by airline passengers and satellites overhead. As of mid-September, more than a million acres have burned in Oregon, twice the average for a usual fire season. Some fires have yet to be contained.

The Archdiocese of Portland and Catholic parishes themselves reported on Sept. 14 that no churches had burned, though there may be damage from smoke and ash. Much of western Oregon has labored under thick smoke, with Portland having the worst air quality of any major city on the planet. Oregonians have been confined indoors.

Parishes in burn areas like the Rogue Valley, Santiam Canyon, eastern Lane County and southern Clackamas County welcomed some of the flood of evacuees. In all, a half-million Oregonians, or 10% of the population, were evacuated or under evacuation warnings at some point.

“The wildfires across the state of Oregon have been devastating to all of us, especially during this pandemic and time of civil unrest,” Archbishop Alexander Sample said in a Sept. 10 Facebook post. “I commend all our Catholic parishes that have already assisted those evacuated and encourage others to help our neighbors and friends however they can.” The archbishop asked readers to join him in prayer for those affected and for an end to the disasters.

The fires moved fast, but the recovery will be slow. The Knights of Columbus want to help in the coming months.

“We were all worried about COVID-19 then the wildfires hit,” said Ron Boyce, state deputy of the Knights of Columbus. “All councils and members need to be prepared to help our communities. … We can overcome these obstacles of COVID-19 and wildfires if we work together.”

The Knights are taking up a fire relief collection, and their halls in Medford, Sublimity and Springfield, plus Clackamas and Lincoln counties, will serve was warehouses and distribution sites for donated supplies like water, food, toiletries blankets and sleeping bags.

Chaos in the Santiam

One of the most devastated areas is the Santiam Canyon, east of Salem, the state capital. The small mountain lake town of Detroit, where a Catholic mission closed several years ago, was destroyed as was the community of Gates.

Deacon Geoff Schmidt, based in Stayton, received a report from a member of St. Catherine Mission in Mill City. The man had been awakened at 2 a.m. Sept. 8 by a firefighter warning people to get out of town. The man said his shrubs and trees were burning as he backed out of his driveway.

As of the morning of Sept. 14, the Beachie Creek Fire appeared to be less than a mile from St. Catherine Church but had not grown closer in several days. All of Mill City was ordered to evacuate by the morning of Sept. 8, as was nearby Lyons, home to St. Patrick Mission. The church there was very near the fire as well. So far both have avoided devastation. The Beachie Creek and Lionshead fires have burned more than 337,000 acres.

“Hopefully those churches in Mill City and Lyons will survive,” said Father Luan Nguyen, pastor. “At the time being, we don’t know when Mass will be celebrated again.”

The nearby church in Jordan, Our Lady of Lourdes, also now sits empty. The Eucharist was moved to Immaculate Conception Church in smoky Stayton Sept 8.

Father Nguyen said he’s evaluating the situation in Stayton each day to determine if Mass could be celebrated there. Two-thirds of the population of Stayton was moved due to the fire. Immaculate Conception, however, didn’t receive an evacuation order. As of press time, much of Stayton was either on a Level 1 evacuation notice, meaning residents should be monitoring news and preparing to evacuate if needed, or Level 2, meaning residents should be prepared to leave. With changing winds, Father Nguyen hoped those remaining would not have to be evacuated. He celebrates Mass and holds adoration daily at the Stayton church and will try to keep weekend Masses at the usual times.

“There are some people still in town, and they want the church to stay open,” he said.

In nearby Sublimity, Marian Estates senior living was evacuated Sept. 8 as the flames drew near. Resident Patricia Fouts had fled with her dog to the Oregon State Fairgrounds in Salem. “It was scary,” Fouts told the Associated Press. “Especially as red as the sky was. I was just glad to be safe and away.”

Benedictine Father Philip Waibel planned Sept. 8 to stop by Holy Rosary Chapel in rural Crooked Finger, a mission where he serves as pastor. By noon that day, however, the Scotts Mills area surrounding the church was evacuated.

“Thanks to the hard work of many in the community — putting out small fires, calling in fires, cutting a fire break with their own equipment, as well as coordinating with the U.S. Forest Service and Oregon Department of Forestry — Holy Rosary Church at Crooked Finger is safe,” Father Waibel said Sept. 14.

The priest added that the Eucharist, sacred vessels and vestments were evacuated from Crooked Finger to St. Mary in Mount Angel Sept. 10.

Father Waibel hopes to celebrate Mass at Holy Rosary Sunday, Sept. 20.

Smoke and ash from nearby fires crept into Father Waibel’s main parish, St. Mary in Mount Angel. The community there is on a Level 1 evacuation notice. Mount Angel has not been touched by the fire, but Father Waibel described the eerie scene outside Sept. 9 as a foggy twilight with ash falling from the sky.

The Benedictine monks and sisters of Mount Angel, including many aged members, are getting ready to evacuate if needed, as are the seminarians at the hilltop monastery.

Towns lost in Southern Oregon

Ann Brophy, pastoral associate at Sacred Heart Church in Medford, stood on her front porch the night of Sept. 8 and watched the small towns of Phoenix and Talent incinerate just a few miles south.

“It was terrifying,” said Brophy, who lives in an area where residents are to be ready to leave at a moment’s notice.

One Sacred Heart parishioner who lives in Phoenix lost her mobile home to flames not long after gathering photographs of her husband who died two years ago. More parishioners have reported being suddenly homeless.

The fire that took Talent and Phoenix, with four reported dead so far, started several miles north of Our Lady of the Mountain Parish in Ashland. The church was not threatened. Police in the Rogue Valley made an arrest for arson in connection with the deadly blaze but denied conspiracy theories that blamed far-left groups.

Level 2 evacuation orders at one point covered the 82,000 residents of Medford, but have since been scaled back to Level 1 as winds subsided and the weather cooled.

Sacred Heart, as well as St. Anne in Grants Pass, offered refuge for evacuees.

Father Bill Holtzinger, pastor in Grants Pass and vicar of the region, has been in touch with local priests. All were safe as of Sept. 14, and none of the church properties had been damaged.

“That, of course, can change in moments,” Father Holtzinger said. “It’s a tense time.”

Father Holtzinger met evacuees at a local shopping center parking lot and invited them to stay at the church instead. The Red Cross has since opened a more sophisticated shelter not far away, so St. Anne has discontinued its effort.

“I believe that those who did come to stay with us were loved and offered the compassion of Jesus,” Father Holtzinger said. “We received all kinds of donations from food, to money, to volunteers to help us host anyone who came our way.”

The Obenchain fire north of Medford is still active as of Sept. 14, and Our Lady of Fatima Parish in Shady Cove has been evacuated. When priests must leave in a pending disaster, they take the Blessed Sacrament with them.

Evacuations in Portland area

By early afternoon Sept. 9, half of Clackamas County, just southeast of Portland, was under a Level 3 “must evacuate” order. All of the county was under some level of evacuation warning. A combined 42,500 acres had burned, with the largest fire, the Riverside Fire, moving 17 miles in one day.

By Sept. 14, the Riverside Fire, still 0% contained, had burned 133,509 acres.

On Sept. 9, Tammy Pagano, pastoral associate at St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Sandy, had been concerned about Estacada, then at Level 2, because her mother lives there.

“Person to person, we’re dealing with it,” Pagano said, adding that the fire seems to be just the latest catastrophe. “It just keeps piling on.”

She was praying for the protection of firefighters, for people threatened by the fires and for folks with family members they cannot reach. “Prayer is powerful,” she said.

Pagano found reasons to be grateful amid the smoke. “It’s devastating but heartwarming to see people reach out to strangers, to help them get out,” she said.

By the afternoon of Sept. 9, Estacada was at Level 3, and Pagano’s phone at St. Michael went to voicemail. Pagano was getting her mom out. “It was dark, and you could see the red glow,” she said, adding that her mother is fine and hoping to get home soon.

Estacada on Sept. 14 was still well within that Level 3 zone with the Faraday Fire burning less than a half-mile away.

Loretta Payne, a member of St. Philip Benizi Parish in Oregon City, lives in nearby Beavercreek, in a Level 2 zone in Clackamas County. She reported that it was so smoky around her home that she could not see her neighbor’s house.

Payne said she has been faithfully praying a 52-day novena to the Blessed Virgin Mary. “We’re praying to God to help the firefighters, for rain from heaven and for the salvation of souls,” she said.

Northwest of Portland, in Washington County, 2,000 acres were on fire the morning of Sept. 9, with firefighters battling the Powerline Fire near Henry Hagg Lake. That fire had been contained and all evacuations lifted by Sept. 13.

In Yamhill County southwest of Portland, the fires pushed Deacon José Montoya to consider how to evacuate the 21 Trappist brothers from Our Lady of Guadalupe Trappist Abbey if it became necessary. Deacon Montoya, the physical plant manager for the abbey, thought the brothers would be safe.

The abbey was without power through the week, and Deacon Montoya had been busy with generators, one of which powers the water pump.

He admits to feeling uneasy about what might happen. “It’s eerie, this orange sky,” he said. “You have this fear of not knowing if the smoke will get too thick, and if the fire will come here. You can’t do anything about it but pray.”

Ross Sears, farm manager at Blanchet Farm in Carlton, like Deacon Montoya, thought the farm, a Catholic refuge for men in recovery, would be spared. The nearest fire was the one on Bald Peak in Yamhill County, which had forced the evacuation of the community of Cherry Grove. By Sunday, all Level 3 evacuations had been downgraded. The Chehalem Mountain-Bald Peak Fire was 75% contained by then.

Farther west, at the coast, St. Augustine Parish in Lincoln City was under evacuation orders as the Echo Mountain Complex fire to the north threatened the area. Highway 101, on which the church sits, was packed with evacuees midweek. By Sept. 12, many of those evacuation levels had been downgraded — and yet on Sept. 14, that fire was only 25% contained, and had burned nearly 2,500 acres.

Ash falling like snow in Lane County

As of Sept. 14, the McKenzie/Holiday Farm Fire — burning in Lane County east of the Eugene-Springfield area — had claimed 165,000 acres, including portions of the Willamette National Forest and the unincorporated town of Blue River. It had killed at least one person. Fire managers estimated containment at 6% Sept. 14 after several days with no containment.

On Sept. 12 some evacuation zones in the region were downgraded from Level 3 to Level 2. Fire officials said the downgrades meant the danger had only subsided enough to allow residents access to make additional preparations for their homes, livestock or other animals.

The blaze has remained several miles from Springfield and Eugene but the air quality has been hazardous.

“It’s snowing ash at an amazingly high rate,” Peggy Ries, business manager at St. Alice Parish in Springfield, said Sept. 9. “By the time you walk from the parish office to your car, you will have a collection of it on your shirt.”

More than 15 St. Alice families on the outskirts of Springfield had evacuated as of Sept. 11.

Milly and Mike Pungercar, members of St. Alice Parish, were among those who left their home, about 8 miles east of Springfield.

“We’ve been married for 53 years, and you accumulate and accumulate and you look around at your stuff, the photos on the walls, and you have to pick,” Mike said. “You have to pick what you cherish most — what can’t be replaced — and what will become only memories.”

In an email message to parishioners, Father Mark Bentz, pastor of St. Alice, encouraged those forced to evacuate to place an image of the Divine Mercy or the Blessed Mother on their door.

“We are praying hard and offering Mass for (parishioners’) protection,” Father Bentz said Sept. 9.

He thought the church, next to the hospital, would be relatively safe if the fire came into the city.

Less than 3 miles from St. Alice is Nativity of the Mother of God Ukrainian Catholic Parish, where Father Richard Janowicz is the longtime pastor.

“Thankfully, all my parishioners are still safe, but the situation keeps getting worse and the fires closer and closer to where they and I live,” said the priest.

Pat Vondermehden, pastoral associate of St. Paul Parish in neighboring Eugene, said some of their parishioners have evacuated. “There are lots of prayers right now,” she said.

O’Hara and St. Paul schools in Eugene had planned to welcome small contingents of younger students for the first day of school Sept. 8. Due to the fires they pushed back the in-person start date.

McKenzie Bridge Retreat Center, run by the Dominicans, remained unharmed as of Sept. 14. Dominican Brother Lupe Gonzales, associate director of the retreat center, is staying on the grounds to watch over the property. A number of Catholics who attend Mass there have lost their homes.

Dominican Fathers Kieran Healy and David Geib evacuated from the center due to the smoke. After staying in a hotel they were residing at St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Bend.

PeaceHealth Medical Group closed three clinics in the area for several days due to the air quality and asked patients to reschedule appointments.

Jerry Ragan, development director for Catholic Community Services of Lane County in Springfield, said in his 39 years in the area, he’s never seen fires and air quality this bad.

But he said Catholic Community Services, which provides a range of emergency services, will remain open.

“We are in the middle of a hotly contested election, we have social justice issues that need attention, there’s a pandemic that’s taking lives every day,” said Ragan. “Then to have this apocalyptic scene — people are feeling tired. But at the same time, it’s steeling people to see how much they are capable of and how important it is to work together.”

— Sarah Wolf, Ed Langlois, Kristen Hannum, Katie Scott