In Wildfire Crisis, Heroes Shine

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From firefighters to restaurant owners, Oregonians are stepping up to help each other in incredible ways.

STATEWIDE – Since wildfires started burning – more than 30 of them – around the state, firefighters and other first responders have been doing everything they can to save the lives of Oregonians. Their service to their communities is truly incredible. One great way to help them: donate to the Red Cross Cascades, who are running emergency evacuation shelters around the state, or volunteer to help them assemble clean-up kits for people returning home after wildfires.

“Firefighters continue to work around the clock, putting their lives on the line to save the lives of others. They’re joined by National Guard members, Army Corps engineers, and Red Cross volunteers conducting lifesaving evacuations, completing structural assessments, and providing food and shelter to those in need. Their efforts are nothing short of heroic,” said Governor Kate Brown. “That’s what we do here in Oregon. We take care of one another.”

In addition, we’ve seen Oregonians without first-responder training step up to help their communities in ways both big and small. As Fred Rogers said, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” There are many, many more, but here are some stories of Oregon’s amazing helpers.

Almeda Fire photo courtesy of the Medford Firefighters Facebook page

Medford Firefighters Pay Meals Forward
Most of Medford’s Firefighters Local 824 worked 48 hours or more with very little rest to fight the Almeda fire. Dutch Bros Coffee Jackson County and TacoRiendo donated food and drinks, and local community members cooked meals for them and dropped off groceries to the fire stations. In fact, Medford firefighters realized they had more than enough food. The firefighters’ spouses organized to donate the extra food to other groups in need around the Rogue Valley, including Kids Unlimited and to emergency shelters in Hawthorne Park, First Presbyterian in Medford, and Central Point.

Gov. Kate Brown met with heroic Oregon State Trooper Cameron Wiggett

Oregon State Trooper Saves Evacuees
Oregon State Trooper Cameron Wiggett voluntarily put in 50 hours of overtime on the Almeda fire. During that time, he safely evacuated two children who were separated from their family and two adults with disabilities to a Red Cross site. His efforts also led to the arrest of a person suspected of arson in connection with the fires in southern Oregon.

Red Cross volunteers Bill and Sherlyn Neal; photo by Lynette Nyman

Volunteers Go The Distance
The Red Cross’ response and recovery missions are 10% staff and 90% volunteers–and thankfully, Oregonians stepped in to help at evacuation centers around the state. Newlyweds and Red Cross volunteers Bill and Sherlyn Neal (above) celebrated one week of marriage by handing out cleanup kits to people returning to communities affected by the Beachie Creek Fire.
Another couple, Patty and Chuck Albin, left their home in those first days after the fires to volunteer with the Red Cross at the Jackson County Expo Center, where they received nearly 2,000 evacuees. They pushed through over 36 hours straight until staff forced them to take a break–which they did, and then came right back to the Expo to continue assisting evacuees. 

Mike Pomeroy, who helped keep the Detroit dam safe, is the second from the right.

Mike at the Detroit Dam
Mike Pomeroy, a Powerplant Shift Operator with the US Army Corps of Engineers, Willamette Valley Project, reported for duty to the Detroit Dam and Powerhouse on the evening of September 7th. During his shift, conditions became progressively worse and the progress of the Beachie Creek Fire nearby into the N. Santiam River Canyon led to evacuation alerts. By the time Mike had made the plant ready so he could evacuate, winds were already gusting over 50mph and the fire was rapidly approaching. He only got a couple of miles down the road in his car before he had to turn around – because of embers, smoke, deadfall, rocks and flames, he could not make his way down the canyon to the east or to the west, and his tire went flat from the heat.

Back at the plant, Mike kept it in a safe status for the next 30 or so hours on his own, as no one could make it in to relieve his shift.  On Tuesday evening, he saw through the security cameras that the fire approaching.  He put all of the vehicles parked outside into an indoor bay and closed up the plant.  Recognizing the plant might be destroyed in the approaching fire, he went into the 500-ft. tall concrete dam.  There, he stayed the night while the fire passed over and around the powerhouse.  He had no communication from inside the dam, so he waited out the next 8 hours, alone and cut off from the world, as the fire passed.

On Wednesday morning September 9, he went outside the dam and made radio contact with the operator at Lookout Point Powerhouse, over 100 miles away.  Enough of the fire had passed and the roadway cleared that he was able to be relieved by two co-workers, and he was escorted into the still-dangerous evacuation area by law enforcement and fire officials.  

Mike’s patience, knowledge of the plant, objective decision making, and purposeful actions, are truly a credit to him, the Portland District, and the US Army Corps of Engineers. By moving the vehicles indoors, Mike prevented them from becoming fuel, which could have caused extensive damage to dam safety and water quality. The trucks could have damaged transformers over water, dumping hundreds of gallons of insulating oil into the source water supply for Salem. But thanks to Mike and other heroes like him, both Big Cliff and Detroit dams and powerhouses functioned well through this challenge. He is an example of true public service and a hero.

Chief Rainbow, the Upper McKenzie Rural Fire Protection District Chief

Fire Chief Continues to Serve Despite Losing Everything
Christiana Rainbow Plews, who most people call Chief Rainbow, is the Upper McKenzie Rural Fire Protection District Chief. She and her team were the first ones on the scene at the raging Holiday Farm Fire, where she immediately called for backup and ordered level 3 evacuations, which enabled as many people as possible to get out of the area safely. The fire quickly burned the entire 20 miles to Chief Rainbow’s own home, destroying it and the homes of a dozen of her district volunteer firefighters, as well as so many of their friends’ and neighbors’ homes; her fire station in Blue River also burned to the ground. Yet through it all, Chief Rainbow has stayed on the front lines, battling the fire to keep as many Oregonians as possible from losing everything, too. “This is a horrible catastrophic event, but the human spirit that is being shown right now with the kindness and the support is exactly what all of us need,” Chief Rainbow told KGW. Friends set up a Go Fund Me for Chief Rainbow here.

Signs to thank the Holiday Farm firefighters

Signs of Support
At the Incident Command Center Post for the Holiday Fire Farm, where firefighters assemble, neighbors have decorated the fence with homemade signs of encouragement and appreciation.

Jackson County Sheriff Deputy Cody Ponder
Jackson County Sheriff Deputy Justin Hall

Deputies’ Dramatic Rescue
On Sept. 8, Jackson County Sheriff Deputies Justin Hall and Cody Ponder drove into the Dun Rovin’ RV Park and heard someone yelling “Help, Help, Help!” from a burning RV. When Deputy Hall got near the RV, he saw a man attempting to escape out of the RV’s storage port but wasn’t able to get out.

Deputy Hall radioed to another officer to grab his chain saw, but he and Deputy Ponder realized the fire was racing through the RV too fast to wait and that they had only seconds to save this man’s life. Deputy Hall grabbed an umbrella off the patio, broke out a window, and swept the windowsill to remove the glass.

Then Deputy Hall and Deputy Ponder were able to pull the man, a woman, and one of their dogs out of the window, just before the RV was consumed by fire.

The quickly-constructed evacuation route in Lincoln City

Building a Road to Safety
Quick thinking – and building – helped Lincoln City residents reach safety during the Echo Mountain Complex Fire evacuations. Evacuation of the east side of Devils Lake began early September 9. An under-construction bridge and related road closure meant everyone was evacuating at the north end of the lake. By mid-morning, fire and smoke had closed the northern evacuation route, and Lincoln County Commissioner Kaety Jacobson and Public Works Director Roy L. Kinion had headed to the bridge construction site.

“When we arrived, we found a long line of people and horses trying to cross the stream at the bridge site,” says Kinion. “We watched as several horses with their owners swam across the stream. It was not going well, as the horses were spooked because of the chaos.” 

That’s when bridge contractor Paul MacClanahan stepped up. MacClanahan, of Cascade Civil Corp, suggested building a route around the bridge with the materials already onsite. With the go-ahead from the county and an emergency removal-fill permit quickly granted by the Oregon Department of State Lands, the team began building a road. 

Within a few hours, the temporary evacuation route was in place and people and horses were able to cross to safety.

Help from Oregon Department of Transportation
On Sept. 14, Medford DMV Manager Libby Morris opened the doors to 15 evacuees from the Phoenix/Talent fire who needed photo ID after theirs were destroyed by the fire. She processed driver license and ID card replacement transactions, and a Red Cross official provided a credit card to pay the fees. It will take 7-10 days for each person to receive their new cards in the mail, but each left with a paper interim card with a replica of the photo and data that will appear on the secure card. Jackson County has identified five other cities where evacuees may need some special assistance with ID replacements, and the DMV is working to connect with them. (The DMV also offers an online service to replace a lost or damaged driver license, ID card, or vehicle registration card.)

A skeleton crew from ODOT’s Commerce and Compliance Division (CCD) in Salem and at the Jantzen Beach registration office worked around the clock each day to ensure that hundreds of emails were responded to, requests for operating credentials processed, and over-dimension permits were issued, which are needed for transporting emergency equipment and supplies. While CCD staff couldn’t be physically in their offices to answer their landlines, staffer Charlie Hutto came up with an interim system to communicate with motor carriers, which sped up the CCD’s ability to issue critical permits and credentials, keeping emergency trucks moving.

Klamath farmers load trucks with donated hay.

Klamath Farmers Care for Animals
A group of farmers in the Klamath Basin spent several days helping evacuate and rescue animals in danger from the 242 fire that ravaged the Chiloquin area. Later, they organized a hay and feed convoy of seven semi trucks, plus several tons of chicken feed and rolled oats, to help feed displaced farm and ranch animals.

Scotts Mills photo by Mike Craig, from the Oregonian

Community on Front Lines with Firefighters
In Scotts Mills, a 400-person town in Marion County, the Oregonian reports that every one trained firefighter is joined by five volunteers: heavy equipment operators, loggers, farmers, and other people from the community willing to do anything to keep their town from being destroyed. In addition to human power, local companies lent bulldozers, water trucks, and excavators, including Jesse Rodriguez Construction, Pacific Underground, D&T Excavation, K&E Excavating, Northwest Drilling and Boring Inc., Wilson Construction, and Blue Heron Farm. People from the town supported firefighters and each other, risking their lives to protect their community from the fire.

Protecting People Experiencing Homelessness
The dangerous air quality around the state is a hazard to anyone outdoors, but especially to those experiencing homelessness, who have nowhere to go to escape the smoke. Several shelters have popped up around the state as daytime smoke respites (check wildfire.oregon.gov for resources), but that doesn’t serve everyone living outdoors. In Creswell, Pastor Rob Walker at New Hope Baptist Church opened the church overnight Saturday as a shelter, according to The Register-Guard. They also report that in Eugene, Black Unity, a local activist group that developed from the Black Lives Matter movement, raised funds to buy N95 masks, food, and toiletries that they distributed to people experiencing homelessness.

Thousands of PepsiCo-donated water bottles at an evacuation site.

Businesses, Nonprofits, and Foundations Lend a Hand
Many businesses around the state are donating time, money, and supplies.

PepsiCo donated 7,000 bottles of water and thousands of cases of snacks to Oregon evacuation shelters. AT&T waived any overage charges for subscribers and delivered a check for $75,000 to the Red Cross Cascades, who are running emergency evacuation shelters around the state. Restaurants like The Humble Pig Cafe in Mollala, Conway’s in Springfield, and La Margarita and Hot Rod Dogs food truck in Salem, and Green Blake Bakery in Klamath Falls have been providing free hot meals to Oregonians impacted by the fires.

Foundations and other nonprofits are also doing all they can to help Oregonians who have lost their homes and businesses. Red Cross Cascades sprung into action right away, setting up emergency evacuation shelters around the state and making sure people are safe and fed. The United Ways of the Pacific Northwest launched the Pacific Northwest Wildfire Relief & Recovery Fund to provide displaced families with access to food, shelter, childcare, health care and other critical services. Governor Brown asked three of Oregon’s largest foundations — The Ford Family Foundation, Meyer Memorial Trust, and Oregon Community Foundation — to come together to establish the 2020 Community Rebuilding Fund to focus on recovery over the medium- and long-term. Other organizations are welcome to contribute to this fund as a way to help get their donations to those most in need.

Elks Clubs Coordinate Resources
The Milwaukie-Portland 142 Elks Lodge opened their parking lot to evacuees and put out a call to the community for supplies like food, water, pet food, blankets, and tents. They soon had such an outpouring that they had to pause on accepting donations. The Elks Lodge 1283 in McMinnville has been distributing sack lunches to anyone in need, including the police and Yamhill Sheriff Department.

About Author

Sarah Wexler is the Director of Strategic Communications in the Office of Governor Kate Brown

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