A flag dances in the breeze on the approach to the burned cabin on the property of Tom and Norma Mack near Lyons. (Ed Langlois/Catholic Sentinel)
A flag dances in the breeze on the approach to the burned cabin on the property of Tom and Norma Mack near Lyons. (Ed Langlois/Catholic Sentinel)
STAYTON — In the ashes of Michele Pfohl’s home in Gates, Father Luan Nguyen spied a broken statue. As Pfohl watched, Archbishop Alexander Sample gingerly picked up the pieces and showed how they fit together into an image of the Blessed Mother.

Archbishop Sample and Father Nguyen visited the Santiam Canyon Oct. 3 to meet Catholics affected by the large blazes that swept through the wooded area last month.

“It’s easy for me to tell you to have no anxiety, not to worry. I didn’t lose my home,” the archbishop said that afternoon during Mass at Immaculate Conception Parish here. “But I bring a message of hope to all of you: The Lord tells us not to be anxious, to trust in him.”

About 650 families in the Santiam Canyon lost their homes Sept. 8-9. Investigators believe downed power lines may have caused the fires, which high winds turned into hungry conflagrations.

Glowing pieces of bark and wood soared in the gusts and started new blazes. Residents of Mill City and Gates fleeing toward Stayton described a tunnel of fire on Oregon 22. St. Catherine Mission in Mill City, and much of the town, was likely saved because volunteer fire crews took a stand as the flames approached.

‘Nothing left’

Pfohl, 79, lost her home of two decades, along with her cat. Despite repeated coaxing, the frightened animal ran and hid inside the house as Pfohl rushed out with little time to spare. Thick smoke, falling branches and flying embers greeted her.

Now, the sturdy metal frame that supported her double-wide is charred and twisted by high heat. Her favorite Japanese maple is a black stub. The tub of glass for recycling is now a melted and resolidified mass. An artist, Pfohl lost dozens of paintings.

The plant stand she brought from home each year to St. Catherine to hold the Advent wreath went up in smoke.

“There’s just nothing left,” Pfohl told Archbishop Sample.

She and her husband moved into the house in 2001. He died four years later. As the years passed, the home had become part of her sense of self. Looking over the ashes, Pfohl thought to herself: “OK, what do I do now? Where do I belong? I just keep reminding myself that I need to look at it as a new chapter.”

Can’t figure it out

A few miles west, between Lyons and Mill City, John Gottfried walked Oct. 3 with the archbishop around the ruins of the home he and his family built with their own hands two decades ago. Perched on a bluff above the Santiam River, it offered stunning views of rapids. The river flows as if nothing happened, but the Gottfried home is rubble, ash and twisted metal.

“I know there is a reason for all this,” Gottfried said. “But I am not smart enough to figure it out.”

When the call to evacuate came, Gottfried, an 82-year-old retired insurance industry manager, was skeptical. A ridge stands between his house and the Creekside Fire then burning on the North Fork of the Santiam. But Jan, his wife of 61 years, looked across the river and saw a glow from a new blaze, approaching fast.

Then the lights went out. In the dark rush to prepare the trailer home for evacuation, John hit his head and had blood running down his face. With the cat and their supply of medications, the Gottfrieds drove to Stayton and eventually to Corvallis to stay with their son. Now, a neighbor Gottfried befriended on long runs has offered a cabin a few miles from his burned home.

Gottfried considered the house the last big project of his life. Three weeks before the fire, he had completed a set of steps down to the Santiam.

“A lot of our heart and soul and energy went into that place,” he said. He and Jan have not decided whether to rebuild.

The Gottfrieds, member of St. Catherine, said the archbishop’s visit inspired them. The couple and the archbishop seemed to hit it off.

“Things are going to be alright,” Gottfried said. “We are not despairing.

The outpouring of love and support is just amazing.”

Home spared

Up the North Fork of the Santiam, the home of Tom and Norma Mack stands unharmed, not far from the ruins of neighboring houses, including a trailer where two people perished. The Macks were away when the fire hit, but their children rushed in to douse the beloved property and also save nearby houses.

Seven feet from the edge of the Mack’s deck, a large tree stands blackened. Just across the river, roots still smoldered three weeks after the fire.

The Macks, members of St. Patrick Mission in Lyons and Immaculate Conception Parish in Stayton, bought the scenic riverside parcel in 1977 and used it for camping and family gatherings. The place is packed with good memories. Tom built a cabin, which succumbed to flames. But the large 2002 house survived through a combination of the children’s efforts, a generator that powered a water pump, a metal roof and, Norma says, divine intervention.

“God was good to us,” Norma told Archbishop Sample. She showed him a statue of Mary standing on the deck above where bushes caught fire.

The fire did leave a heavy smell of smoke in the house, which caused an awful memory to resurface. In 1972, the Macks lost two sons, ages 9 and 12, in a home fire.

“This really brought back so much pain to my kids,” said Norma, who has avoided the house because of the smell. “We just hugged each other and have been very close. I know God takes care of us. I say thank you, God, and try to do the best I can do.”

Not abandoned

In his Stayton homily, Archbishop Sample said God responds to our pain, even if it’s not in the way we want.

“Trust in him,” the archbishop said, his voice growing quiet with emotion. “He will not abandon you, has not abandoned you. He will never abandon you.” The archbishop explained that God did not cause the wildfires but will use the tragedy to draw a greater good.

“This outpouring of love and care and concern and selflessness — it is going to help you realize what is really important, what really matters.”

The archbishop gave a $10,000 check to Father Nguyen from the Archdiocese of Portland’s wildfire relief fund.

Church giving aid

Many Catholics are playing a key role in relief efforts in the Santiam Canyon.

Anthony Hall, the Knights of Columbus lodge in Sublimity, has become the area’s hub of aid for fire victims. Federal, state, county and church organizations are cooperating smoothly. More than 300 volunteers are organizing donations, stocking shelves and helping people find what they need.

Hefty donations have come from the supreme council of the Knights of Columbus and other Knights’ districts around Oregon, including the men from St. Pius X Parish in Portland, who gave $8,000, a supply of gift cards and 2,000 pounds of food.

Ed Diehl, Grand Knight of the Knights of Columbus in the area, recalls a young mother, expecting another child, who lost everything in the fire.

“She was in here getting basic stuff that every mom should have for her kids,” said Diehl. He was glad the child could pick out some toys.

Within a week of the fires, volunteers had turned Anthony Hall into a fully stocked variety store. People take what they need, no charge. A large refrigerated trailer holds perishables.

“We are in this for the long haul,” said Diehl, who plans on helping with cleanup and reconstruction once basic needs are met.

Spiritual welfare also is a concern. The wildfire relief site includes a small chapel.