Wildfires: Local resident survives ‘Armageddon’ at Detroit Dam

By Sarah Brown
Lebanon Local

It was time for Mike Pomeroy’s 12-hour shift at the Detroit Dam, about an hour away.
He said goodbye to his wife at their home in Lebanon, expecting to see her the next day. Little did he know he would find himself stuck on a river in the middle of one of the biggest fires in Oregon history.
It was Monday, Sept. 8, and Pomeroy, a dam operator at Detroit, met his coworkers at the dam for a late-night shift change. They were aware that the Beachie Creek fire was spreading from the east and of the approaching windstorm. They discussed possible courses of action, should it pose a danger at the dam, but they weren’t too concerned because it was miles away, Pomeroy said.
About midnight, the power’s main line tripped, so Pomeroy went to Big Cliff, a few miles downstream on the North Santiam River, to fix it.
“That’s kind of when the storm really started hitting hard,” he said. “The winds were whipping up so heavy. It was, I don’t know, 50 miles an hour, I guess.”
While at Big Cliff, he found a law enforcement officer helping someone with a tire change. The wind was so loud, they had to yell to communicate, and that’s when the officer told Pomeroy they were at evacuation Level 3.
“But I still had things I had to get done,” Pomeroy said. “I couldn’t leave the river in the state that it was in. I needed to get back up to Detroit and get the flows all stabilized to protect the river.”

HEAVY SMOKE clouds the dam in this shot Mike Pomeroy took during the Beachie Fire, which burned through the dam area.

Dam operators are responsible for dam stability and flood control, said Tim Ernster, Pomeroy’s supervisor. As the fire evolved, flow control systems were shutting down, so Pomeroy would need to get the dam in a static state, so it could function without human control, before the controls were completely offline.
“If we release too much water because we lose the system, and if anybody were taking shelter downstream, they could be washed out,” Ernster said. “And if the system failed and the gate closed, we’d cut off the water supply to, like, the city of Salem and the residents in the canyon.”
Pomeroy was still able to communicate with his employer, the Army Corps of Engineers, and his wife at this time, and they decided he would finish stabilizing the dams and then evacuate at 5 a.m. on Tuesday.
By the time Pomeroy climbed into his little Chevy Spark, the fire had already reached the dam and cut him off.
“I thought, ‘Well, OK, I’ll just drive through the fire line and on out of here,’” he said. “But that was a big mistake. I didn’t realize how bad it really was.”
The further he drove, the more debris he saw. Boulders, fiery fallen logs and tree limbs were scattered across the whole road, and thick smoke like an Armageddon scene made travel nearly impossible, he said. He could feel the heat of the fire, and smoke began to fill his car.
“I also became aware that I didn’t drive through the line so much as drove into it,” he said. “It wasn’t just a little fire. It was a swath. It was really wide.”
Pomeroy did a quick calculation in his head and realized it would take him about three hours to get 10 miles, he said.
At this point in time, his wife, Ronda Pomeroy, was aware he was heading out. She was relieved to think she’d see him soon. About 40 minutes later, he called.
“When he called me, I thought that he had made it down, but he was actually back at the

A WALL of flames shows on a monitor as it approaches Detroit Dam, where Mike Pomeroy was trapped in the operator’s booth as the Beachie Fire swept through.

dam,” she said. “That’s when I was really starting to get concerned. I knew that fire wasn’t the problem; it’s a concrete bunker. I was worried about the smoke, what it would do to him.”
The dam is designed to handle any kind of hazard, but the ventilation system would pull smoke into the plant, Ernster said. If the air quality got bad enough, Pomeroy could pass out and suffocate.
“Beyond that, the guys work around a lot of hazardous energy, rotating machinery,” Ernster said. “Having a sleep-deprived operator just trying to keep running the plant for an indefinite amount of time, the odds of him making a mistake and getting hurt were kind of going up, as well.”
Indeed, carbon monoxide levels were starting to set off alarms, but Mike kept his mind busy as he made sure the dam’s equipment was safe, and that he was safe, he said. He even opened the gates and visitor center, in case anyone retreated to the dam for safety.
Communications were down by this point, and Ronda was unable to get through. Then his boss called her and said they lost communication with him. Now she didn’t know what to think, but started to wonder if she’d lost him, she said.
“I was pretty worried. I thought that he, you know, I didn’t get to say goodbye to him,” she said.
Mike said that at this point, he was starting to feel isolated and sad.
“I didn’t get a chance to tell my family goodbye, because I didn’t know what the end result was going to be,” he said. “And I was sickened by the thought (about) what they were going through. I couldn’t comfort them.”
About 24 hours after he first arrived for his shift, Mike tried to get some sleep in the lowest part of the dam.
“But I couldn’t. I just lay there for two hours looking at the ceiling,” he said.
So he got up and looked outside, happy to see that, by all appearances, he was out of danger, he said. Then he saw a small red dot on the security monitor. Then several dots.
“I realized that the fire probably just now started reaching me,” Mike said. “And it wasn’t very long after that I could see a full blown blaze, a full blown wall of fire heading towards the dam itself, heading towards me and the powerhouse and the dam. And in my mind what I said to myself was, ‘Well, I guess it’s game time.’”
At this point, the Army Corps had been trying to requisition helicopter flights with the National and Coast Guards to rescue Pomeroy, but visibility made it impossible, Ernster said. All they could do was wait for when firefighters and law enforcement were able to re-enter the area.

SUPPLIES FOR SURVIVAL are staged throughout the tunnels of the dam, in case Pomeroy has to evacuate.

Pomeroy spent the next “exhausting” several hours staging breathing gear, water, food and other emergency supplies all throughout the dam, in case he had to evacuate, he said. By early Wednesday morning, he laid down and got about an hour’s worth of sleep, despite the alarms still going off.
“I just had to kind of take a chance and roll the dice and finally go to sleep,” he said. “I didn’t want to go to sleep before that, because that to me was putting chance in charge.”
When he got up, Mike could see the fire had passed and communication was re-established with the outside world. Other dam operators were on their way.
Alexander “Lex” McClure, one of the dam operators who arrived after the fire had passed, said they didn’t know what to expect when they arrived. Communication had been lost for about 12 hours, and they hadn’t heard from Mike.
“We were concerned, but we were glad to see that the power house was still standing when we showed up,” McClure said.
Seeing his team at the dam was emotional for Mike.
“There was a couple of operators and some of my coworkers on the maintenance side, they all showed up, my boss showed up, and it was a pretty emotional greeting,” Mike said.
Camden Fernald, dam operator, said he was impressed by Mike’s planning.
“Mike had put a lot of thought into contingencies and planning and sort of the ‘what if’ scenarios,” Fernald said. “He had pulled all the little emergency air breathing canisters and spaced them out appropriately throughout the facility, such that if he ran into a scenario, he could easily reach one.”
Ronda expressed deep gratitude for the multitude of people who tried to rescue her husband, and for staying in contact with her. Down the ranks, from the commander down to an employee who also lived in Lebanon, they kept in touch with her during the whole ordeal.
“They were very good to us that whole time, which was a lifesaver for me, even though I cried a lot,” Ronda said. “But, you know, they did help keep me hopeful that things were moving forward.”
Mike was grateful too.
“I just can’t say enough, from the crew they work with, and the operators and the maintenance guys, the men and women of the Corps – to do what they did, I’m just very thankful to all of them,” he said.