Labor Day Wildfires: Dam Operator Trapped At Detroit Dam During Beachie Fire, Took Refuge In Lower Level

By Kerry Solan, Army Corps of Engineers, Portland District

Before leaving for his work shift, Mike Pomeroy said goodbye to his wife, Ronda, the way he always did: with a promise.

“I’ll see you in 14.”

The powerplant operator then made the drive for his shift at Detroit Dam that Labor Day evening, in “red flag” conditions as the Beachie Fire consumed swaths of land to the northeast.

Detroit Dam is isolated in a canyon in the Cascade Mountains, 45 miles east of Salem. The 500’ dam creates Detroit Lake behind it, and under the masterful plant operators, release just the right amount of water from the dam into the river below.

Through the night, the fire surged south as Pomeroy went about his work, driving between Detroit Dam and Big Cliff Dam three miles to the northwest. Dams operators manage both dams while on shift. Around midnight, the “main line” blew at Big Cliff, and he drove to the dam to reset it.

“I knew conditions were deteriorating” Pomeroy said. “While traveling to Big Cliff, the wind had kicked up to 50 or 60 miles an hour.”

At the time, county emergency managers issued evacuations alerts as the fire rapidly migrated into lands in the North Santiam River Canyon.

Pomeroy discovered this as he came across a state trooper – he had to shout to communicate with the trooper. The trooper informed Pomery about the Level 3 evacuation notice.

Pomeroy returned to Detroit Dam began to prepare the plant to be in an “unmanned” state.

“I knew time was critical,” he said. “It was a race to get things in the best state possible before I left.”

Pomeroy began shutting down generators at the dam, and opening regulating outlets to continue the flow of water out the dam.

Detroit Dam is considered a remote location, which meant that radios and cell service were intermittent.

Pomeroy spent the next hours preparing to evacuate Detroit Dam as fire approached from the north, swallowing thousands of acres of land.

Finally, in the morning, Pomeroy received the notice to evacuate. He finished readying the dam, and called his wife.

“I’m evacuating,” he told her.

Ronda was watching the fires.

“I knew that if the fire came, he’d be cut off on both sides,” she said.

He climbed into his Chevy Spark and took local Highway 22 toward Big Cliff Dam. Fires raged around his vehicle. Embers, smoke, deadfall, rocks and flames littered the road. Pomeroy only made it a few miles.

“I drove through the fire line, hoping to get past it, but the farther I got, I knew I was really in it,” he said. “And I knew if I got stuck, there was no way out of it.”

Roads were blocked by fire from the east and west. Pomeroy began to look for a place to turn around.

Tim Ernster is Pomeroy’s supervisor.

Tuesday morning, Ernster was still planning on a shift exchange for Pomeroy, even though he knew Pomeroy would be reluctant to leave his post.

“I wanted to make sure Mike had an escort out of there, and the incoming operator had an escort in,” he said. “We thought we still had access to get to Mike.”

Meanwhile, Pomeroy was attempting a return trip to Detroit Dam.

“Driving through the smoke, my visibility was, at best, a few feet,” he said. “I knew if I hit a hit a boulder or downed tree, I may not make it back to the dam.”

Pomeroy radioed to his counterparts: he could not make it out. They responded: they could not make it to him.

About 45 minutes after telling his wife he was heading home, he called her again.

“I thought he was calling to tell me he was out of the canyon and was safe,” she said. “But he told me he couldn’t make it out.”

Pomeroy was cut off, and in the path of the fire.

Dustin Bengtson is the deputy chief of operations in the Willamette Valley, and oversees conditions of the “projects” in the valley. Among his many duties, he runs scenarios to plan for disasters – events that would affect the dams throughout the valley.

“We are tuned into fire hazards this time of year,” he said. “I’d had a conversation with Mike before his shift about the wind forecast – we knew the risk was high.”

But what was forecast and what unfolded was unprecedented.

Pomeroy’s supervisor, Ernster, knew things must be bad if he couldn’t even make it 5 miles.

“It’s the first time I thought that he might not make it,” he said.

At the dam, Pomeroy continued to secure the site.

“I was doing as much as I could to keep the powerplant, the equipment and myself safe,” he said. “I kept brainstorming to keep myself busy: ‘what else could I do?’”

Pomeroy brought vehicles into the powerhouse main bay. He opened the gate and unlocked the penthouse for anyone seeking refuge from the fire.

“It was a hundred little details that kept me moving, kept me preparing for whatever would come next,” he said.

During intermittent radio contact, he was able to bounce ideas off his coworkers.

“It was comforting.”

Pomeroy also communicated with his wife when he could.

“He didn’t tell me exactly what he was going through – I think he didn’t want to worry me,” Ronda said. “He said he was going to take care of the dam, and was getting ready to shelter in place.”

Ann Gardner was Ronda’s contact when Ronda couldn’t reach Pomeroy

“She was very calm,” Gardner said. “She focused on his pride in his work, and that he was concerned for project safety and taking care of the plant.”

True to Ronda’s expectations of Pomeroy, when he wasn’t preparing the facility, the plant operator began to stock the dam – his last ditch was going to be inside the concrete walls of dam. He staged water, food and self-contained breathing apparatus. He soaked cloth air masks in water to prepare for smoke. He brought in a cot, spare clothing, a sleeping bag from his locker: “anything I could think of.”

At this point, the gloomy sky was raining ash, and Pomeroy said he could barely tell it was daylight.

Pomeroy repeatedly climbed the stairs in the dam to stock survival supplies at different levels of the dam through the day, and continued his efforts to prepare the dam, powerhouse and facilities.

Pomeroy would take short naps throughout the day, setting alarms to sleep for only 15 minutes at a time.

“There was an exhaustion factor, but I didn’t like the idea of sleep,” he said. “It felt like putting chance in charge.”

Near the end of the day, the air seemed to clear.

“I didn’t see the fire – the air was better,” he said. “I was hopeful that the worst was behind me.”

Miles away in Salem, Ernster was monitoring the fire – and knew it was heading straight toward Detroit.

“When Mike went on shift, it went from a 5% chance that the fire would reach him to the fire being on top of him so quickly,” said Ernster. “To watch the condition change so quickly was definitely scary.”

Around 7:40, Pomeroy called Ronda.

“He told me he was going to finish up what he was doing and then rest,” she said. “I took comfort in knowing that he’s smart, and he was going to do all he could do.”

It was the last communication Ronda had with Pomeroy.

“I didn’t realize that’s when the fire was moving toward him,” she said.

Pomeroy continued to watch for the fire, and Tuesday evening, he saw it approaching as he watched the security cameras.

“I didn’t know how much time I had,” he said. “It was a pretty good size, and it looked like it was moving fast.”

He used his radio to communicate with other dam operators as he worked his final preparations.

“By the time I was done doing all that I could possibly do, I’d completely lost communication,” Pomeroy said.

In the time he had left, he made his way to the dam and powerhouse.

Recognizing the plant may be destroyed in the fire, he went into the concrete dam.

It was around 11:30 p.m. when he closed the dam door behind him – his only refugee was a chipmunk that ran inside the powerhouse earlier.

Near the door of the dam, he staged a life preserver in case he needed to leave the dam and ride out the fire, submerged in the river below.

With communications cut off to Pomeroy, Ernster no longer had the distraction of communicating with Pomeroy.

“I kept thinking, ‘I’m powerless to do anything, and this could get really bad,’” Earnster said.

Detroit Dam is a large concrete structure with cold, dimly-lit tunnels that run through it. Pomeroy decided to shelter in the lower level, believing it to be the best and most secure place.

There, deep inside the dam, Pomeroy laid down on his cot and pulled his sleeping bag around him. It was so cold he could see his breath.

Knowing he’d done all he could do, he closed his eyes as fire erupted around dam.

Pomeroy’s wife could not bring herself to sleep that night.

“I finally laid down around 2 a.m., but I couldn’t sleep – I didn’t want to miss a call from him,” she said.

When Wednesday morning came, she tried the phone to the powerhouse, Pomeroy’s cell phone and couldn’t reach him.

Ronda, Pomeroy’s wife of nearly 38 years, said she began to cry.

“I thought I’d lost him.”

At 7 a.m., Bengtson called Ronda.

 “They’d lost communication with Mike, but were trying to get in to him,” she said.

 Eight hours after entering the dam, Pomeroy poked his head out of the door.

“I didn’t hear or see fire,” he said. “I saw daylight.”

He tried his radio. Lookout Point, more than 100 miles away, answered him.

“That was a happy moment.”

Pomeroy’s coworkers and supervisor were in a briefing when they received the news that Pomeroy was OK.

“There was a pause in the briefing,” said Bengtson. “I knew each one of us was relieved to hear he was OK.”

Around 11, Earnster and coworkers, escorted by law enforcement and fire officials in the still-dangerous evacuation area, left to reach Pomeroy.

It took an hour of navigating through roadways littered with debris to reach the powerhouse operator.

Ernster said he “isn’t a sentimental guy,” but said he ran over to hug Pomeroy.

Pomeroy had been alone for 30 hours when he saw his supervisor and coworkers arrive.

“It was exhilarating to see them,” he said. “There was a lot of hugging.”

But after greetings, Pomeroy began to work. The team began to bring the plant back up, and get the generators running.

“We still had a job to do,” Pomeroy said.

As of Sept. 18, the Beachie Fire had burned more than 190,000 acres and claimed the lives of 4 people.

Pomeroy’s family was in Lebanon, and safe from the fires. Returning to them was “everything” Pomeroy said.

“It’s hard to talk about,” Pomeroy said. “It was very important to get back to my family – it was the number one thing.”

At 5 p.m, Ronda finally heard from Pomeroy: he was heading home.

Within an hour, Pomeroy, escorted by Ernster, was standing in his front yard.

“When he showed up at the house – there are no words,” Ronda said. “My son was with me, and it was a huge hug-fest. Having him standing there in the yard was pretty good.”

Days later, Ronda wrote a letter to the team:

Words cannot express how thankful l am to have Mike here with us. I know that without the coordinated efforts of countless people across the Corps things would have turned out very different. All the things that were done behind the scenes, the diligence and care that was given to the whole operation and the dedication of all involved has made me appreciate our Corps family even more.  We are beyond grateful for the support and positive attitude needed during a stressful time for all. The phone calls, messages, and concern for me and our family are something that will never be forgotten.

Many lives are forever changed due to this devastating event.  Everyone that contributed to the rescue of my husband are now forever family.

With sincere thanks and appreciation,

Ronda Pomeroy

A week after he took shelter in the dam, Pomeroy spoke about the team that supported him from afar through the disaster.

“I’d like to thank them all – their efforts to get to me, their constant communication with my family,” he said. “I can’t thank them enough.”

The experience didn’t prevent him from returning to the line of work.

On Sept. 18, Pomeroy returned again to Detroit Dam for his shift.

More news from CBB: