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.”
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.”
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.
The direness of the situation escalated when the 911 call center, which is located in Woodburn, lost contact with its channel in Detroit, Oregon. The Lionshead Fire was raging there at the same time.
“There was so much going on. There was so much fire, and there were so little resources,” Dennis said.
Scrambling to get out
The power went out at Dennis and Denise’s house at about 8 p.m., which isn’t a big deal because they have battery backups for lights.
Denise and Shirley Hoover, who stays at their house as part of an adult foster program, had dinner and went to bed, only to be awakened by a Marion County Sheriff’s Office deputy banging on the back door.
The deputy told her she needed to evacuate now. While she got ready, he went outside to clear the driveway so she’d be able to get out.
Denise helped Shirley get dressed first, then focused on their two rescue animals. She coerced Savannah, a calico cat, into a carrier. She put Guni, a five-pound Pomeranian missing his right front leg, in a large shoulder bag.
She grabbed her purse, then put it down to gather medications. They locked up, piled in the minivan and headed down the 125-foot driveway behind the deputy’s patrol car.
Denise immediately wished she would have grabbed more clothes, not to mention her wedding ring sitting on the dresser. She was mad when she realized she’d left her purse on the bedroom floor, although not overly concerned.
“My mind was saying, ‘You’ll be back in a couple of hours.’ “
The drive out of the canyon was relatively uneventful, but she’ll never forget having to slow down in Mills City behind two pick-ups. The occupants were running their horses alongside their trucks.
She wished she could have lent them their horse trailer.
Trying to save lives, homes
As he frantically worked the phones, Dennis had a sinking feeling about Denise and Shirley. But he had a job to do, one that could help save other lives.
“I didn’t really have time to think,” he said.
Denise tried calling his cell phone when she made it as far as Stayton. She had to borrow a phone. Hers had been in her purse.
Dennis couldn’t answer. It was too busy. There wasn’t even time between calls to go to the bathroom.
When he did get a free moment, he tried calling her — over and over.
Technically, he’s not allowed to make personal calls while working. Given the circumstances, he did it anyway. He alternated calling their home and her cell.
Without her purse or any money, Denise drove to METCOM to wait for Dennis in the parking lot. Unbeknownst to her, she parked just out of view of the center’s security cameras. A couple of spaces over, and it would have saved Dennis some anguish.
He didn’t know she was sitting out there, safe and sound, for more than 2½ hours.
A police officer finally approached her as he headed out on a call. He knew her husband and said Dennis would be relieved to know she was here. The officer eventually passed on the information to another dispatcher, who told Dennis.
But that wasn’t until nearly 4 a.m.
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Contemplating retirement — again
When Dennis’s shift ended three hours later and he’d finally connected with Denise and Shirley, they called his brother, hoping they could stay with him. But he evacuated from the outskirts of Sweet Home, which was impacted by the Holiday Farm Fire.
They called several hotels in Salem, finally finding a pet-friendly one.
Later that morning, they heard from his boss and a colleague’s husband who both confirmed their house was gone. Photographs show all that’s standing are two chimneys. Their mailbox looks unscathed.
They saw the devastation first-hand on Thursday afternoon, escorted by a sheriff’s deputy. It was just as bad as they imagined, but there was one bright spot.
“There sat my tractor in pristine condition,” Dennis said.
Denise wanted desperately to look for her ring, but their insurance adjustor instructed them to wait until he was on site.
The loss of their home could push Dennis closer to retirement, although his wife highly doubts it.
He was going to retire last year after celebrating his 40th anniversary, but there’s a national shortage of dispatchers and METCOM is understaffed. So he stayed on.
Dennis returned to work for his regular shifts just four nights after losing his house. His boss and supervisor told him they would cover his shifts. But Dennis wanted to be there — almost needed to be.
“The first night back was very weird. It was still busy with spot fires and flare-ups,” he said. “But it was normal for me. We were still sending people out and taking care of the community.”
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