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A mother's tragic story: Finding a way to heal after the Santiam Canyon wildfire

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A forestry office burned in the wildfire.

Angela Mosso wears a compression garment under her shirt all day and night, removing it only to shower or apply ointment to her arms, shoulders and back. It's painful and uncomfortable, especially during an unusually hot summer, but necessary.

Constant pressure will help reduce scarring from the third-degree burns she suffered 10 months ago during the Beachie Creek Fire in the Santiam Canyon, one of the deadliest wildfires in Oregon history.

Her feet practically melted to the bone as she fled the inferno that engulfed North Fork Road, the gateway to a maze of swimming holes and hiking trails. They healed on their own and look almost normal today, although she has nerve damage and can't walk long distances.

Burns on her back and shoulders required skin grafts, and she'll soon have another surgery on her right arm where scar tissue limits movement.

Angie knows she will physically recover, and the scars will fade. But the emotional scars are fresh and permanent.

She lost her mother and only child in the wildfire. Peggy Mosso and Wyatt Tofte were the first of five canyon fatalities last Labor Day.

The three were separated by smoke and flames while trying to load their car and evacuate their home in the middle of the night.

Angie survived only because her longtime partner Chris Tofte ignored barricades and risked his life to try to save his family.

Two days later, while she was fighting for her life at the state's only burn center in Portland, 13-year-old Wyatt was found behind the wheel of the family's Honda Civic. The car was still on the property the family rented 4½ miles up North Fork Road. His dog Duke was draped over his lap. His 71-year-old grandmother was next to him in the front passenger seat.

Once she was released from the hospital, the couple retreated to the Oregon Coast, first staying at a family member's condo, then a vacation rental home.

This is some alt text Angela Mosso and her son, Wyatt Tofte. (Courtesy of Angela Mosso)
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Angela Mosso
Your heart physically hurts so bad, like it's going to explode. If you don't try hard enough, you could just die.

Angie has never publicly shared her story from that harrowing night.

Nearly a year later, she and Chris are frozen in their grief. They haven't been able to make decisions about returning to work, where they might live next or if they will be ready to seek help from a counselor.

"Your heart physically hurts so bad, like it's going to explode," Angie said. "If you don't try hard enough, you could just die."

"People say they're dying from a broken heart, but I didn't think that was a real thing," Chris added. "I do now."

Letters become lifelines

As the story of Chris' rescue of Angie and the death of Wyatt and Peggy spread across the world, cards and letters came pouring in offering condolences, prayers and encouragement.

Chris couldn't bring himself to read any of them. It was too painful and still is.

But for Angie, the messages from strangers, many of whom have suffered personal tragedies of their own, somehow helped when it seemed nothing could or ever would.

Leann Moore, close friend of Angela Mosso
Those letters, in moments of despair, saved her.

Shoeboxes filled with hundreds of letters — she estimates more than a thousand in all — are stacked on shelves, on the dresser and in a tote. She's read each one, some multiple times.

"If it wouldn't have been for their letters and all that love … " Angie said, her voice cracking.

Close friend Leann Moore said the letters were lifelines.

"Those letters, in moments of despair, saved her," Moore said.

Angie writes a couple of thank yous a week, but it's doubtful she'll be able to respond to everyone.

"I want them all to know every single one of them was seen and heard and helped with the depression and everything being gone," she said through tears. "To be uplifted out of that, after something so bad, I would have never thought that could have happened."

Reading all the cards and letters sent from people around the world has been uplifting for Angela Mosso.
A colored pencil drawing of Wyatt Tofte, his grandmother, great grandmother and dog Duke.
Reading all the cards and letters sent from people around the world has been uplifting for Angela Mosso. (Courtesy of Angela Mosso) Reading all the cards and letters sent from people around the world has been uplifting for Angela Mosso. (Courtesy of Angela Mosso) Reading all the cards and letters sent from people around the world has been uplifting for Angela Mosso. (Courtesy of Angela Mosso)

Support for her and Chris, who technically aren't married but have been together since they were 21, has come in many forms.

A Gofundme fundraiser online has raised nearly $300,000. Gifts large and small have been delivered, from a new bed with the note "If you don't get rest, you won't heal," to homemade goat's milk soap from 10-year-old twins in Aumsville, mild enough to use on Angie's burns.

One person created a colored pencil drawing of Wyatt and Duke, with his grandma and great-grandma and a bright, shining star behind them. They're all smiling and waving. The artist successfully captured facial features and postures. It'll hang somewhere in the house once Angie has it framed.

"It was because of all these people that we survived," she said. "These people made sure we lived after this."

'Still seems like a dream'

Angie has a way of masking the physical and emotional pain, welcoming visitors and a chance to dote on them. She's always been a natural caregiver. She filled that role for her mom for several years.

Chris wears his heart on his sleeve and tends to be more withdrawn.

While part of them still feels like they have nothing to look forward to and no reason to live, another part believes they survived for a reason, although they may never understand why.

Some days, they manage only to go through the motions, eating, sleeping, waking up the next morning, and doing it all over again. Other days, they muster the strength to act like their old selves when family and friends visit.

This is some alt text Wyatt Tofte and his dad, Chris Tofte. (Courtesy of Angela Mosso)
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Chris Tofte
It's hard to figure out how to mourn. We still haven't done it.

Holidays, birthdays and other momentous occasions bring setbacks. Last month, they attended what would have been Wyatt's eighth-grade graduation at Scio Middle School.

His name was called during the ceremony, and a moment of silence was observed. The school announced a memorial garden in his name will be installed on campus, and each of his 20-some classmates was given a pine seedling to plant in Wyatt's memory.

The tribute meant the world to Angie and Chris, but seeing their son's classmates and the heartbreak in their eyes was almost too much to bear.

"It's hard to figure out how to mourn," Chris said. "We still haven't done it."

Wyatt was their only child together. Part of them is gone forever.

"It still seems like a dream," Angie said.

"Like we just haven’t woken up yet," Chris said. "It would have made more sense that way."

'I don't have a lot of regrets'

Angie and Chris were together 10 years before welcoming their pride and joy into the world.

Wyatt Payton Tofte was born Feb. 13, 2007, at Salem Hospital.

Wyatt Tofte was smart, had a great sense of humor and loved animals and video games.
Wyatt Tofte was smart, had a great sense of humor and loved animals and video games. Courtesy of the family

They lived on the outskirts of Jefferson at the time, in a house next door to Angie's mom and grandma.

Wyatt was an easy-going child. He looked like Chris and had Angie's personality. He was smart and loved animals. He had a great sense of humor and loved to play video games.

He and his dad used to go for drives, listening to music and looking for adventure. Chris would introduce him to bands from his era, such as the Beastie Boys.

When Wyatt's baseball team needed a coach, Angie volunteered. It didn't matter that she barely knew how to throw a ball.

She was a protective mom but could push the limits and have fun, too — like the time she took young Wyatt and a friend on a roller coaster ride on a backcountry road. The boys had a blast, and Angie told them the ride would be their little secret. Wyatt's friend didn’t tell his mom until just a few months ago.

Wyatt was mature for his age — some might say an old soul — and he had a tender heart.

"He was very compassionate about other people, always wanting to make people comfortable," his mom said.

He and his mom had a special bond that deepened during commutes to and from school. Even after moving to North Fork Road in 2018, Angie and Chris kept Wyatt enrolled in Scio School District, where he'd been with the same group of friends since kindergarten.

The 20-minute drive each way gave them time to discuss a variety of topics, even girls.

He once asked his mom's opinion about breaking up with his first girlfriend. Texting was his plan, but he didn't want to hurt her feelings. His mom urged him to do it in person and not before school, so the girl wouldn't be sad all day.

Angela Mosso
I don't have a lot of regrets. Of course, I want more time. But the time that we had, we made a good go of it.

The breakup went smoothly. Wyatt and the girl remained friends, and their friends didn't have to take sides.

"Who gets to have that?" Angie said. "The one girlfriend he has, and it went like a dream."

Reminiscing about special moments like that makes Angie smile through the tears.

"We did everything that we could do as a family," she said. "We didn't have a lot of money, but we'd always go hiking, we'd always go do something. I don't have a lot of regrets. Of course, I want more time. But the time that we had, we made a good go of it."

They had gone hiking to lure Wyatt away from his video games the day before the wildfire blew up. They drove up the hill a ways, then hiked to the highest peak to check on the fire.

"It was so far away," Angie said. 

Wyatt Tofte and his dog Duke on a hike the day before Labor Day, when historic winds fueled the Beachie Creek Fire.
The Beachie Creek Fire in the Opal Creek Wilderness threw up a major smoke column on Wednesday.
Wyatt Tofte and his dog Duke on a hike the day before Labor Day, when historic winds fueled the Beachie Creek Fire. (First photo courtesy of Angela Mosso, second from U.S. Forest Service) Wyatt Tofte and his dog Duke on a hike the day before Labor Day, when historic winds fueled the Beachie Creek Fire. (First photo courtesy of Angela Mosso, second from U.S. Forest Service) Wyatt Tofte and his dog Duke on a hike the day before Labor Day, when historic winds fueled the Beachie Creek Fire. (First photo courtesy of Angela Mosso, second from U.S. Forest Service)

Escaping through a tunnel of fire

If they had known historic winds that Labor Day night were going to whip the fire into a frenzy, they would have evacuated earlier. Like others who lost so much, Angie and Chris have gone over all the what-ifs. They've each saddled the blame.

But once Angie learned details about the raging fire and heard how neighbors narrowly escaped, she knew it wasn't her fault.

"I knew I did the best I could," she said.

That doesn't make it hurt any less.

Tears turn to sobs when she recounts the struggle to evacuate her son, her mom, a dog and three cats as flames closed in on the home.

"It doesn't make it any worse for me to tell the details," she said. "It's not like total therapy for me, but it's not making it worse for me."

Duke, a 200-pound bullmastiff mix, woke her up at about 1 a.m., and she discovered fire surrounding the house. Chris still wasn't home from a friend's house, where he had gone to borrow a trailer for them to load up belongings Angie had gathered on the porch.

She knew the fire was bad, but still thought they had time to get out. The cars were gassed and ready to go. They were about a 10-minute drive from Lyons and a 30-minute drive from Salem.

Fire damage around the Little North Santiam River in the Little North Santiam Canyon outside Lyons, Oregon, Sept. 25, 2020.
Fire damage around the Little North Santiam River in the Little North Santiam Canyon outside Lyons, Oregon, Sept. 25, 2020. CONNOR RADNOVICH / STATESMAN JOURNAL

She woke up Wyatt first and had him gather the cats. Then she woke up her mom, who had recently fallen and broken her leg and was scheduled for surgery in a few days.

They started to load up in her mom's Oldsmobile, which was parked in front, but no one could find the keys. Their next option was a Honda Civic, which was blocked by a four-wheeler and a wheelbarrow full of something. They managed to ram through it all.

At some point, the Honda stopped, and it became clear they wouldn't be able to drive out. They didn't even make it down the driveway to the main road.

Some people have wondered why they didn't just run to the river, the Little North Fork of the Santiam, but Angie didn't see that as an option. It was about a mile away, and access would have been steep and dangerous. Plus, they were surrounded by fire.

Towering Douglas fir trees were going up in flames like kindling, and the fire was spreading from treetop to treetop.

North Fork Road, a narrow, winding road flanked by forest, became a tunnel of fire. Nearly all of the homes on both sides were destroyed. The other three people who died in the canyon that night also died in that area.

'I love you, Mom'

Angie made a split-second decision and told Wyatt and Duke to run for it.

She knew her son could handle it, or she would never have sent him on his own.

"He was so responsible and so grown up, that's why I had him go ahead of me," she said. "I couldn't not try to help my mom and my animals."

Before he left, he turned to her and said, "I love you, Mom."

She repeated the words to him, and then he ran.

Everything happened in a matter of minutes. No one was screaming or crying.

"We were going very fast, but there was a calmness and peacefulness," she said. "I can’t imagine if it was the other way. Actually, it probably should have been the other way."

For months, friends were scared to ask what happened.

"I was picturing it very different," Moore said. "How could you not?"

The firewall pushed Angie further away from the house and the car. She ultimately knew if she wanted to survive, she had to leave her mom behind. Peggy was unable to walk out on her own with a broken leg.

Angie never saw Wyatt return to the car, although she wasn't surprised to later learn that he had. He was close to his grandma, too.

"He couldn't leave her. He had to go back," she said. "I think he thought, 'I have the knowledge to have a chance at saving her. Maybe I can get that car out.' "

Wyatt's dad had taught him how to use a clutch and stick shift just a few weeks before.

When Chris later went back to the property, he saw the car had been moved from where Angie had left it — not far, but it had been moved. There were drag marks from the wheels, where the tires had melted away.

"He tried, I could tell," Chris said.

Chris Tofte gets emotional after a group of volunteers left to continue searching for his son Wyatt Tofte,13, and his dog Duke in Stayton, Oregon, Sept. 9, 2020.
Chris Tofte gets emotional after a group of volunteers left to continue searching for his son Wyatt Tofte,13, and his dog Duke in Stayton, Oregon, Sept. 9, 2020. BRIAN HAYES / STATESMAN JOURNAL

3 miles through 'lava'

Angie got out by walking barefoot nearly three miles on the blazing hot asphalt. The rubber sliders she'd slipped on when she got out of bed melted away the moment she stepped out of the house into what she described as lava.

She knew her only chance was to stay on the pavement, which acted as a barrier to the flames in the forested areas on either side. She tried wrapping the clothes she was wearing around her feet, first her T-shirt and then her pajama pants.

She doesn't remember being in pain, just exhausted. The pain would come later.

She wanted to rest but knew she was running out of time. The fire seemed to be chasing her. Burning embers rained down on her, and she'd been whacked a few times by falling tree branches.

"I wasn't giving up, I just felt I couldn't go anymore," Angie said.

Around that time, she came across a man who was trying to find his way out, too. They couldn't see each other through the smoke-filled darkness, but they could hear each other.

Neither had a phone. Both promised to send help if they made it out.

"It gave me an extra burst of energy knowing there was extra hope," said Angie, by then down to just her underwear.

Burned landscape surrounds a sign pointing toward Highway 22 on North Fork Road, September 2020.
Burned landscape surrounds a sign pointing toward Highway 22 on North Fork Road, September 2020. CONNOR RADNOVICH / STATESMAN JOURNAL

What seemed like only seconds later, she fell. She felt so weak and tired, she couldn't get up. She thought she was dying.

"I'm not exaggerating," Angie said. "I felt my eyes closing for the last time."

All of a sudden, she saw a bright, white light.

"Not like my tunnel to heaven light," she said. "But I didn't know what it was."

She saw the silhouette of someone walking toward her. She instantly knew it was Chris. She recognized his posture.

He didn't recognize her with her hair singed and her mouth almost black.

Chris had blown past the blockade and saved not just her, but the man whose voice had given Angie hope. Chris picked him up on the way out.

They later met Scott Torgeson, a retired Keizer elementary school teacher, in the room across the hall at the burn center.

The burns, recovery

Angie was taken first to Salem Hospital, then to the burn center in Portland. She had third-degree burns on 21% of her body, the most severe on her back and feet.

Her body was weak, and the risk of infection was high. Doctors worried she could have a heart attack or stroke because of the stress on her body.

"They made it sound like she didn't have a good chance," Chris said.

If she survived, doctors told Chris she may never walk again. The news didn't come as a total shock after what he saw when he found her on the side of North Fork Road.

"I could see inside her ankles, all the muscles, tendons, cartilage and bone," he said.

Surgery wasn't an option on her feet because there wasn't enough skin left to work with. Antibiotic ointments and bandages were applied, and they hoped for the best.

Skin grafts for the burns on her back and shoulders were done using skin taken from her thighs.

In a few days, she was able to sit up in bed. A few days later, she was sitting in a wheelchair.

A "North Fork strong" sign in the ground beside North Fork Road.
A "North Fork strong" sign in the ground beside North Fork Road. CONNOR RADNOVICH / STATESMAN JOURNAL

All Chris wanted to do was crawl in bed with her and snuggle, or at least give her a hug. But she was in too much pain. For the longest time, they could only touch fingertips.

Angie never knew something could hurt so badly.

"When a doctor asks me what my pain level is, I don't think I'll ever say a 10," she said. "I know what a 10 is now. I'd say a 3 or a 2."

She fought to be released sooner than doctors recommended because she was worried about Chris. He was torn up about Wyatt's death and almost losing her, and being around a hospital always made him anxious.

Angie ate 6,000 calories a day, in addition to what she got through a feeding tube, to help her body heal and regenerate faster.

She felt they needed to be together, and she wasn't intimidated by the wound care and dressing changes. She'd been a caregiver for years and was confident Chris could assist when needed.

"It was going to hurt whether they did it or I did it," she said she thought at the time. "I might as well go home and try to save us." 

Caring for burns is labor-intensive. They have to be protected and moisturized. Early on, she had to apply ointment every hour and a half. Now, it's down to four times a day.

That's the only time she takes off the compression garment, other than to shower. She'll have to wear it for up to two years. It not only offers protection but helps the scars heal, smoothing the rippling skin of burns.

Chris Tofte interlocks his fingers behind his head and takes a moment to himself before going to continue to search for his son Wyatt Tofte, 13, and his dog Duke in Stayton, Oregon, Sept. 9, 2020.
Chris Tofte interlocks his fingers behind his head and takes a moment to himself before going to continue to search for his son Wyatt Tofte, 13, and his dog Duke in Stayton, Oregon, Sept. 9, 2020. BRIAN HAYES / STATESMAN JOURNAL

Unable to move on, yet

Angie's first thought when she was released last October, a month to the day of the wildfire, was to escape to the other side of the world — as far from Santiam Canyon as they could get.

Since that wasn't realistic, they settled for a secluded place on the Oregon Coast with help from extended family.

They've been comfortable, but it just hasn't been home.

They had the rental house on North Fork Road done up in Western décor. It wasn't fancy, but it was theirs. A log bed was one of the finishing touches. Angie always wanted one and found a used one about a year before the wildfires.

Angela Mosso; her mother, Peggy Mosso; and her son, Wyatt, in an undated photo.
Angela Mosso; her mother, Peggy Mosso; and her son, Wyatt, in an undated photo. Courtesy of Angela Mosso

The couple appreciated everything they had, but much of it can be replaced. They also lost generations of family photographs from both sides, which can't. They were the keepers of their parents' photo albums.

Without Wyatt and Peggy, it's been difficult for them to find joy in anything. Even recently, when Chris bought a new truck, he couldn't get excited about driving it.

Family and friends wonder if they should go back to work to take their minds off what they've lost, but they say they're just not ready. Angie had been her mom's caregiver for several years, and Chris worked for a Salem demolition company before the wildfire.

They haven't had to worry about finances thanks to the Gofundme account, but they've been careful not to spend on anything but what they've needed.

"We're scared to," Angie said. “What if we can't work? What if we can't keep a job?"

They're not sure what they want to do or where they want to live. The subject of returning to the canyon has come up, more from Chris than Angie.

"Am I going to be able to drive up that road and not remember every single time that walk, that journey?" Angie said. "Or can I learn to love it again the way that I did? It really was a happy place. I know it's going to be pretty again."

But she also knows everywhere she turns something will remind her of Wyatt and her mom.

As the first anniversary of the wildfire approaches, they're still trying to find a way to heal. They've yet to talk about their grief with a professional but say they probably eventually will.

"It's unreal how many months have gone by and the world has moved on, and we haven't," Angie said. "All of the sudden you have no choice but to start a completely different life and start over again, but how do you pick that?"

Capi Lynn is the Statesman Journal's news columnist. Her column taps into the heart of this community — its people, history and issues. Contact her at clynn@StatesmanJournal.com or 503-399-6710, or follow her on Twitter @CapiLynn and Facebook @CapiLynnSJ.

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