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