He survived an Oregon wildfire by perching on a rock in a river, fending off embers with a chair
SALEM, Ore. – The chair was green and plastic, the kind you might find in a patio set or along the edge of a creek.
But for one night, Don Myron used it as a shield from embers of the Beachie Creek Fire, as he sheltered from raging flames on a rock in the middle of the Little North Santiam River in Oregon.
“Everything around me was on fire,” said Myron, 56, who has lived in the Elkhorn Woods community in the Little North Canyon for the past 11 years. “That chair helped save my butt.”
Myron’s story is just one coming out of the Little North Canyon, one of the areas hit hardest during the Labor Day wildfires.
Much of the Little North Canyon has been torched. Four people in the canyon have been killed. A majority of homes in the Elkhorn community area have been destroyed.
Myron's story helps explain why. Trapped in the canyon by downed trees and flames roaring on 70 mph winds, he survived with a combination of guile and luck, finding an ideal rock in the middle of the river where he could stay until the worst of the firestorm passed.
"If there's anybody who can survive that situation, it's my dad," said Chris Myron, Don's son. "He's smart, can think on his feet and is very resourceful."
Labor Day Weekend was pretty normal, Myron said. His son Chris and his girlfriend visited and “we just had a good time on the river,” Myron said. “They left that afternoon. It was blue skies and no wind. Things changed in a hurry.”
Myron knew about the wind warning. The Marion County Sheriff’s Office put the area under a level 2 evacuation Monday morning and sent crews out to suggest residents evacuate that afternoon. Even so, most figured it was precautionary.
The original Beachie Creek Fire had remained small for weeks and was still about 15 miles away as the crow flies.
“They did say: this might be your only warning. If we have to go to level 3, we’re not sure we can make it up here,” he said.
Myron spent the next few hours watering everything he could around his house and property and prepared to leave if needed. At around 6:30 p.m., the power went out, but he turned on his generator.
“I had my last conversation with my oldest son around 8:45 p.m. I still felt OK at that point, although there was some smoke."
Flames on both sides of the river
The first branch landed on his roof at about 9:15 p.m. Ten minutes later, an even bigger branch crashed down. Myron went outside, looked up, and saw that the sky had turned orange.
“I ran to the end of the driveway, looked down the canyon and both sides of the river were engulfed in flames,” he said. “From there everything went into overdrive.”
He ran back into the house, turned off the generator, grabbed essentials and jumped into his car, only to be stopped by a huge log in the road. And his car had a flat tire.
“I couldn’t go any further,” Myron said. He turned around and, driving on the rim and shrinking tire, headed back to his house to trade his car for his truck. But he hit another set of logs blocking the road.
“The flames were pretty close to the house — within 100 yards,” he said. He got back in the car and started driving. But after running into more logs, and feeling the flames closing in, he thought: “Don, you’ve got to pull over and get the hell down to the river and under the bridge.”
Under the bridge, a green chair and a Rolling Rock
Myron headed off the road and under a concrete bridge, where he was up to his waist in water.
“I just hung out there for about an hour,” he said. It was about 11 p.m. “All of a sudden, I started noticing all the vegetation under the bridge was starting on fire. I had to get out."
He headed downstream, to a place the river widened, and came across three plastic chairs sitting on the side of the river. He grabbed one. Then he saw a 24-pack of Rolling Rock beer.
"I thought: 'What are the chances there's any left," he said. Sure enough, there was exactly one beer. He grabbed that, too. It was going to be a long night.
Armed with a green chair and brew, in the middle of the river, Myron wondered what his next move would be.
“I looked upstream and saw a ledge of rock jetting out into the middle of the river that looked like a good spot,” he said. “So I crossed the river to this ledge. And then the winds just came at me.”
Wind speeds, which have been estimated at 70 mph or higher, funneled down the canyon, blasting Myron with ember showers as the entire forest became a pulsing wall of flames.
“When the wind really kicked up, I picked up the chair and held it in front of me,” he said. “That chair was incredible. It helped a lot.”
When the winds died down, he sat on the chair on his rock peninsula, trying to stay awake as the firestorm ebbed and flowed.
As for the beer?
“Hell yeah I drank it,” Myron said.
After a few hours, Myron started to feel OK — as though he might make it. But he soon realized the air was getting so smoky he was concerned about breathing.
“That was the one thing I was really unsure about it,” he said. “Am I getting enough oxygen?”
He put his t-shirt over his mouth and noticed that the air appeared cleaner along the surface of the water.
“There was a couple foot buffer between the smoke and the water,” he said. “The key was to stay down low, next to the water, and breathe through the t-shirt.”
Slowly, Myron started seeing light. At first he thought it was another flare-up. But the night had raced past. It was 7 a.m. and dawn was breaking. So was the fire.
“It had subsided some. The flames weren't going crazy the way it had been all night,” he said. Myron crossed the river and climbed back to his car — which, to his amazement, was still intact, and even started. He drove forward, clinking on the flat tire toward the Elkhorn Golf Course. He looked around and began to understand the devastation.
“The fire leveled everything,” he said. “Good friends and neighbors' houses were demolished.”
There were a few houses that made it, he said, in surprising spots.
He sat in his car in shock, for maybe an hour. Then, since the wind was quiet, he decided to check on his home. He walked up the road and saw a neighbor's house had survived. But when he arrived at his place, “it was completely leveled.”
He walked back down the road to his car, fully expecting to spend another day in the canyon trapped by the downed trees.
“It was around 2 p.m. when I saw three sets of emergency lights, and let me tell you, that was an awesome sight,” he said. “These big rigs cleared the road.”
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A terrified family prepares for action
Chris Myron had seen his dad just hours before the firestorm began. But now it seemed like an eternity, as he listened to the chaos and mayhem on the Marion County scanner as flames ravaged the Santiam Canyon.
"I just sat up all night listening to it. Didn't sleep at all," Chris Myron said. "I could tell it was really bad. I knew people had died and there was a chance he didn't make it."
By morning, still without information, Chris and his older brother Nick decided to take action.
They put together a crew and got two trucks, three chainsaws and lots of water. They formed a plan to get past the roadblocks on Highway 22 and charge into the Little North Canyon to save their father.
"We were in the process of hugging our mom and girlfriends goodbye," Chris said. "We're literally leaving the driveway when I saw my brother's girlfriend on the phone. Then I saw her jaw drop."
It was their dad.
"My brother and I freaked out," Chris said. "I couldn't believe it. We cried and hugged for a solid minute.
"Then we went to go get our dad."
In looking back, Myron said it was plenty of luck, plus knowing the river and having spent a lot of time outdoors that saved him.
Luck, in that if those trees hadn’t stopped him, he likely would have driven directly into a firestorm that absolutely torched the area.
The bodies of two people were found in a burnt-out car in the same location Myron would have been heading.
He said knowing the area — the spots on the river and landmarks, plus being physically able, also made all the difference.
“Thank God I ended up in a wide spot of the river and away from the banks,” he said. “Closer to the banks, the trees, branches, fire and boulders would have pummeled me.”
In the future, he said, he would heed warnings when they came. And at some point, he figured he'd have to repay his neighbors for borrowing their patio furniture.
“I suppose I should get them a new chair,” he said with a laugh.
Follow reporter Zach UrnessTwitter at @ZachsORoutdoors.