Dam operator receives medal for heroism during 2020 fire

By Scott Swanson
Lebanon Local
Lebanon resident Mike Pomeroy was honored Feb. 15 for what U.S. Army Corps of Engineers officers called his “heroism” at Detroit Dam during the Beachie Creek fire on Sept. 8, 2020.
Pomeroy, 57, was presented a Department of the Army Civilian Medal of Valor for his performance  as a dam operator when the fire swept over the dam area, isolating him for some 40 hours as he kept the dam operations going.

Pomeroy stands with his wife, Ronda.

Two Army colonels presented the medal in a ceremony at Foster Dam before an audience that included Pomeroy’s wife Ronda, three of their four children, his parents and his brother.
The event included a video with images recounting the devastating fire and Pomeroy’s actions, viewable at www.youtube.com/watch?v=i7mpjC2yL0A.
(Pomeroy’s experience during the fire was recounted in a Lebanon Local story  in the October-November 2020 edition, viewable at www.lebanonlocalnews.com/wildfires-local-resident-survives-armageddon-at-detroit-dam.)
Col. Geoff Van Epps, commander of the Corps’ Northwestern Division, which includes 14 states and the Columbia, Snake and Missouri river watersheds, called Pomeroy “an uncommon public servant” and noted that the award ceremony was “the rarest of occasions.”
“I have never before seen a civilian award for valor and I just feel very humbled and very much honored to be here,” Van Epps said.
Pomeroy transferred to Foster a little over a year ago. He has worked for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for six years, first as a high-voltage electrical technician and then as an operator. Dam operators  are responsible for a dam’s stability and managing flood control.
“I switched to operator thinking it would be safer,” he said.

A VIDEO PRESENTATION at the ceremony shows the location where Mike Pomeroy weathered the Beachie Creek Fire in September 2020. The video can be seen at www.youtube.com/watch?v=i7mpjC2yL0A.

Pomeroy knew, when he started his 12-hour shift at Detroit in the middle of the night during the summer of 2020, that the Beachie Creek fire, which was first detected Aug. 16 in the Willamette National Forest’s Opal Creek Wilderness near Detroit, was spreading from the east, and that a windstorm was expected.
He and his co-workers discussed possible courses of action, should it pose a danger at the dam, but they weren’t too concerned at that point because it was miles away.
Given Pomeroy’s responsibilities as an operator, he, Ronda and his superiors agreed that he would stabilize the dam and get out, but by the time Pomeroy was ready to go the fire had cut off his escape and he was trapped. He called Ronda and told her he would have to stay.
Although the dam is designed to handle any kind of hazard, the concern was that its ventilation system would pull smoke into the power plant, where Pomeroy was, said Tim Ernster, Pomeroy’s supervisor at the time.  Pomeroy spent the next 12 hours trying, unsuccessfully, to sleep in the lowest part of the dam and planning how he would evacuate, should that become necessary. As the fire roared around the dam, communications were down and he was cut off from the rest of the world for some 12 hours before the fire passed and other dam operators were able to reach Detroit to relieve him.
Van Epps first heard Pomeroy’s “incredible story” while working at the Pentagon in fall of 2020.
“It’s something from a movie,” he said, adding that he’s served five combat deployments of various lengths and seen service members honored for valor in combat. He noted that, while civilians are “almost never” asked to rise to such circumstances, Pomeroy was “so devoted to your task that you were willing to ride out the fire to make sure your duties were accomplished under the most trying circumstances imaginable.”

MIKE POMEROY, left, stands with family members following the Feb. 15 Medal of Valor presentation.

Col. Michael Helton, commander of the Portland District, said the entire Northwestern Division is “extremely proud of you” for rising to the occasion.
“I did want to say that training matters,” Helton said. “Mike, you were trained. You knew what to do in the heat of the moment, right – pun unintended.”
He credited Pomeroy with making sure “nothing happened to that dam, that flows were right, that the water supply to the community was protected, and was able to do so while protecting himself, “which we’re all very thankful for.”
Pomeroy said he was overwhelmed by the award, calling it “amazing.”
“I don’t know what to say,” he said. “Thank you.”
He related the story of a farmer whose horse ran away. Neighbors stopped by to commiserate. The next day, however, it returned, bringing seven wild horses with it. The neighbors returned to congratulate him on his lucky break.
“What a great turn of events!” they exulted.
“Maybe,” the farmer replied.
The following day his son, while attempting to break one of the new horses, fell and broke his leg.
The neighbors were back, noting the bad turn.
Then conscription officers came through the next day, looking to draft able-bodied young men. They passed on the injured son.
“Isn’t that good luck,” the farmer’s family told him.
“The whole process of nature is an integrated process of immense complexity,” Pomeroy said. “It’s really impossible to know whether anything that happens is either good or bad, because you now know what will be the consequences of misfortune, and you never know what will be the consequences of good fortune.
“And so this whole experience has taught me that lesson: Things come back out of misfortune and I’m very thankful for all of this.”
Staff Writer Sarah Brown contributed to this story.