State Sen. Fred Girod, wife, feel effects of Santiam fire firsthand

By Scott Swanson
Lebanon Local

It was 1 a.m. on the morning of Sept. 8 when state Sen. Fred Girod awoke in his bedroom overlooking the North Santiam River.
He still doesn’t know why.
“It was just one of those flukes,” Girod said. “I just happened to wake up, in the nick of time.”
That, it turned out, was a life-changing and life-saving moment.
When the Girods retired earlier that night, they’d been told the Beachie Creek and Lionshead fires were well off – “30 miles away,” he said. “We were not under an evacuation order.”
But when he looked out the window in the middle of the night, he was worried.
“The smoke was so bad, I couldn’t see across the river. I could see some red flashes, which I now realize was fire. But I couldn’t tell.”
He woke his wife, Lori.
“I told her I thought we had to leave. We got dressed and got out of the house as fast as we could.”
They exited the house and made their way through thick, choking smoke to where their vehicles were parked, up the slope from the home Girod’s parents had built in the late 1960s between Lyons and Mill City, in which he’s lived off and on since 1968.
“The wind was blowing really hard,” Girod said.
They jumped into their SUV, heading up the hill toward the main road out of the area.
“We were really scared that a blowdown would block us from getting to Highway 22,” he recalled. “It was smoky. Really smoky. You couldn’t see, probably, 10 or 15 feet.”
They made it out and joined a procession of evacuees heading west, driving to Salem, where they found one of the few remaining motel rooms in town.
Fifteen minutes after they left, neighbors told the Girods afterwards, their house was engulfed in flames.
“We pretty much just got out of the house with what we had on our backs,” Girod said in a tired voice. He looked worn.

State Sen. Fred Girod gazes at burned timber across from what used to be his home above the North Santiam River, which was destroyed by the Santiam Canyon Fire.

Now, three months later, he and Lori have had time to process it all as they live in a rental in Salem and await the reconstruction of their home.
The fire came down both sides of the river from the west, leaping from spot to spot. All that’s left of the Girods’ two-bedroom home, built literally on the edge of the basalt bank above the river, are the footings, which, he said, might be salvageable. They found their 48-inch refrigerator, a hunk of melted metal.
“We couldn’t save the chimney, he said, standing on the site, gesturing at a slab of concrete that used to be a fireplace. “I was disappointed. It was really pretty rock.”
There are no original plans, so they’re working from scratch with a “fantastic home designer,” Heather Harris of Sweet Home, who is putting together a new set aimed at reconstructing the family home.
“She’s not afraid to get dirty,” Lori said. “She came up with a tape measure and jumped right into a foundation that was full of ash and debris, got her measurements and she was ready to go.”
Fred Girod had almost completely remodeled the house, he said.
“I did a lot of work on it. I enjoyed doing that sort of thing. I was a dentist and I enjoyed working with my hands. There was not too much of that house that was not totally redone.”
That was then. This is now.
The lack of rental housing, which has been an issue throughout the district, has become very real, the Girods said.
“A lot of families are not as fortunate as we are in finding housing as quickly as we did,” Lori Girod said. A lot of families are still in motel rooms.
“I’ve got people in tents, in manufactured housing, in fifth wheels, in trailers – you name it,” Fred Girod said. “A lot of people didn’t get a settlement for how long it’s going to take them to rebuild. It’s a mess. This is not a real super wealthy area.”
Clearly, he says, there were glitches in the emergency warning systems.
“We did not get notified,” he said. “That just isn’t acceptable. If it was just me, that would be one thing, but I’d say half the people on this street were not notified.”
There are property tax issues: How much can counties charge for properties that have been wiped bare by fire?
There are cleanup issues: Where can fire debris be deposited?
“That was a problem we had, coming out of the gate,” he said. “I want to make sure people are incentivized to rebuild. I want to remove as many barriers as possible, give counties a lot more freedom getting building plans approved – that sort of thing.”
They themselves paid the costs for the cleanup of their property, instead of waiting for the state to do it, he said.
The tragedy has also provided an opportunity to correct infrastructure problems that existed in Detroit and Gates, and Girod said he’s looking to direct state funding toward solving longstanding issues there as well.
“Now’s the time to fix it,” he said. “Hopefully, the state will come up with money so there are no out-of-pocket expenses for individuals.”
Agencies are trying “very hard” to be cooperative, he said, but they’re bogged down by bureaucracy.
“Decisions are lacking,” he said. “Sometimes we just need someone to make decisions.”
Lori Girod noted that another aspect of recovery from the fire is how it is affecting children.
“The timing of this natural disaster couldn’t have been worse for children,” she said.
Normally, in the wake of such a catastrophe, parents would be able to send children to school for part of the day, where they would have access to counseling, food, clothing and more.
But since the Santiam School District school in Mill City sustained smoke damage, though it did not burn in the fire, and insurance does not cover smoke damage, the school remains closed.
“It’s been a real hardship on children,” she said.
Fred Girod said he’s working to get state funds directed toward opening the school.
That is just the tip of the iceberg of post-fire complications they’ve addressed.
The fire aftermath has posed legislative challenges, the Girods said.
“There’s a whole slate of legislative concepts that we’ve been working on,” Lori said.
There’s the school funding formula, which dictates that schools get paid per pupil by the state. Districts in which students have been displaced don’t have their normal populations and hence are not receiving money they’ve budgeted for under the funding formula. That impacts a district’s ability to make bond payments, for one thing, Fred Girod said.
Personally, Fred Girod was targeted after the fire by an avalanche of what he describes as “vicious” responses to his loss.
“There were people who blamed Republicans for the fire because of global warming,” he said. “I got a call from Brooklyn, N.Y.”
Actually, it went beyond that, said Lori, who serves as Fred’s legislative assistant.
“It was both national and international environmentalists. It was very targeted,” she said. “Hundreds of contacts. It was social media, phone calls, emails, hard copy letters, essentially in any form of communication possible.”
The social media barrage got to the point that Democrat Jim Hinsvark, who was running against Girod for the state Senate District 9 seat at the time, told Lebanon Local that he felt compelled to go online and tell the posters to cool it.
“I would say they were just extremely vindictive – that I’d gotten what I deserved,” Fred Girod said. “We’ve dealt with complex matters in the past and had a lot of flack before. But this one was off the charts.”
The level of rancor was such that they employed some “safeguards” for a period following the fire.
“We didn’t let people know exactly where we were living,” he said.
On the other hand, they said, legislators have been “pretty darn good” on both sides of the aisle – “lots of phone calls, lots of encouragement.”
Another plus was sudden interest from major media outlets in the fire and in the Girods’ own experience, they said.
Fred Girod said the fires demonstrate a need for better forest management.
“We need to harvest trees, thin trees, take care of some of the underbrush,” he said, noting that his entire district is built on timber-related industries. “That’s one message I really try to get out to newspapers. It gets pretty technical, but when the light comes on, they understand what the problem is.”
Following the fire, a reporter from the New York Times accompanied Girod and Linn County Commission Chairman Roger Nyquist on a trip out to the Santiam Canyon.
“When you explain that when the tops of the trees touch each other, fire spreads, they get that. When the lower limbs don’t get photosynthesis, they tend to die and that’s fuel for the base of the fire. They start understanding why we have to do some of the things we have to do.
“It’s a chance to present our story on the national stage. It’s important for our people.”