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Dennis Schlies talks about his time working as a 911 dispatcher during the wildfires, while his home was burned down.

Salem Statesman Journal

SALEM, Ore. – Dennis Schlies worked the Sept. 7 night shift for METCOM 911, the dispatch center that handles emergency calls for the Santiam Canyon in Oregon. So he knew.

He knew before his boss delivered the news by phone, and before a colleague’s husband snapped nothing-but-rubble photographs.

He knew when he took one of the first calls about a fast-spreading fire sparked by downed power lines near an elementary school, the site of an incident command post for the Beachie Creek Fire.

The house he and his wife Denise have shared for nearly 20 years stood less than two miles from the school.

He could live without it, but not without her.

Dennis and Denise Schlies pose for a portrait with their dog Guni, on Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020 at a hotel in Salem, Oregon. Dennis Schlies is a 911 dispatcher known by many as the “Voice of the Canyon.” Schlies was taking calls the night the wildfires exploded, all while his very own home in Gates, Oregon was burning down.  (Photo: ABIGAIL DOLLINS / STATESMAN JOURNAL)

Dennis didn’t know her whereabouts. But he still managed to calmly direct resources to multiple new fires and advise his neighbors in the canyon how to get out alive.

He could only hope his wife had time to evacuate.

Fellow dispatchers couldn’t imagine being in his position while maintaining focus during a 12-hour shift, especially one so grueling.

Then again, they expected nothing less from the man they know as the “voice of the canyon.”

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Appreciating what they have

Dennis has been a dedicated dispatcher in the area for 41 years. He’s an anomaly in a profession where burnout contributes to high turnover.

Listening to the worst moments of people’s lives can be stressful. And for Dennis, it can get personal.

There are times he recognizes the voice on the other end of the call.

Dennis is a lifelong resident of the canyon, a region where widespread disasters are rare. A tornado ripped through 10 years ago this December, damaging 50 homes, but no one lost their lives.

Four people have been confirmed dead in the Beachie Creek Fire and an estimated 470 homes destroyed.

Dennis and Denise lost everything but are thankful for a roof over their heads, even though a small room on a bustling floor of a hotel is a far cry from their five-bedroom, 4,168-square-foot house on 23 tranquil acres.

“You can’t be depressed about it. Life goes on,” Dennis said over breakfast at Elmer’s, turning to his wife and tearing up. “We’re alive. We’ve got our animals.”

Dennis Schlies holds his dog Guni, on Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020 at a hotel in Salem, Oregon. The Schlies made it out of their home in Gates, Oregon with their dog and cat and a few other personal items. (Photo: ABIGAIL DOLLINS / STATESMAN JOURNAL)

They’ve been married for more than 33 years and are adorable with their matching monikers and shirts. Matching shirts is their thing — for no reason, just because  and they had about 40 in all colors and styles.

They met in December 1986. Dennis’s mother had been trying to set them up. Denise was her hairdresser. When her son needed a haircut, she recommended he go to Denise.

He did, and they instantly clicked, although he did rush out before she could finish the cut because he was called out to a fire. He was a longtime volunteer firefighter.

The subject of marriage came up on their first date. They were both divorced.

Less than two months later, on Valentine’s Day, they were married in Reno, Nevada, by an Elvis impersonator in a glittery white jumpsuit.

Their $259 wedding package included a room and video, which they haven’t dusted off for years. They wish they could watch it now, but it’s most likely melted in the rubble.

“Oh, well,” Dennis said, “at least we’ve got the memories.”

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Handling 423% more calls

Dennis will never forget that Monday night shift at METCOM. He’s seen and heard some crazy things in his career, but nothing could have prepared him for that night.

With hurricane-force winds in the forecast, the center planned for an uptick in calls.

METCOM’s service area includes 36 rural communities in Oregon’s Marion County and portions of Linn and Clackamas counties. The call center provides dispatch services to seven law enforcement agencies, 17 fire districts and two private ambulance districts.

Seven dispatchers clocked in at 7 p.m. instead of the usual three or four. Executive director Mark Spross later said even if he had 10 more dispatchers working, they couldn’t have kept up with the call volume — 423% higher than normal.

Maybe an hour into the shift, Dennis took that call from someone reporting a brush and grass fire in Mehama. Multiple calls for the same incident came in at the same time.

“You always know when something bad is happening,” he said, describing how the red dots light up on the phone-mapping screen of the computer-aided dispatch (CAD) system.

It was considered a high-risk grass fire, with homes and businesses at risk, so several units were dispatched. It was just the beginning of what would turn into a raging inferno that nearly wiped out entire communities.

The Gates home of Dennis and Denise Schlies was destroyed by the wildfires. (Photo: Special to the Statesman Journal)

Evacuating Beachie Fire camp

Earlier that Labor Day, before he went to work, Dennis and his wife talked about how they needed to get go-bags ready.

He wished they had followed through, especially after he started receiving calls about a fire at the base of Potato Hill, not far from the road to their house.

Dennis soon was on the radio with one of the assistant fire chiefs who reported no homes or structures threatened. But within a matter of minutes, they all were.

Additional units were dispatched to assist at each location. Trucks began screaming through the canyon.

Losing contact with Detroit

Back at METCOM, where dispatchers sit in front of a minimum of six monitors, Dennis and his colleagues scrambled to field the onslaught of calls.

His work station lit up as he’d never seen before. There was so much going on and so few resources. They bumped resources from one incident to the next.

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