Years ago, Tim and I lived in a part of Oregon prone to wildfires due to lightning strikes on the mountain. Every summer, fire crews would camp in town to go fight fires in the Eagle Cap Wilderness. One summer it was so bad, Tim was hired on to help. I volunteered by picking up all the dirty laundry of the firefighters, washing it and returning it. They would put their clothes in duffel bags and we would make the switch. I did this at a time when I was washing clothes and caring for 4 children ages 5 and under. Additionally, we would make sack lunches for the firefighters and deliver those as well.
A person couldn’t help but be moved by the way the communities in the county came together to offer aid to the firefighters as they protected all of us.
The fires that are raging in Oregon have not been in our county this week. We have not been under evacuation orders. However, neighboring counties to the West, South and North of us have all been dealing with apocalyptic evacuation scenarios.
Tim and I were in the Willamette Valley last weekend helping our daughter and son-in-law. When we went over on Saturday the skies were brilliant blue. We worked indoors and outdoors on both Saturday and Sunday. We didn’t finish up Sunday until almost 8 p.m. Our plan had always been to return home Sunday night. Monday was a holiday but Tim had to prepare for his week of classes and I had school myself on Monday. Still, it was late Sunday when we were finished and I thought perhaps we might want to stay another night. Tim said, no, he thought we ought to get on home. So we said our goodbyes and headed back over the mountain, driving through some of the towns that were on fire by Monday morning.
We had heard Monday’s weather report. High winds throughout Oregon. Some reaching up to 50 mph. We get a lot of wind here in Deschutes County, especially in the late afternoons. We knew the winds would bring in smoke from the forest fires in the Cascades. Fire planes had been flying over the house throughout a lot of August due to the Greenridge fire. Konnie, our youngest daughter, was at the beach with her family. She had warned us that the fire near Mt. Jefferson was blowing in a lot of smoke.
None of us could predict what was to come.
My friend Sheryle got up Monday morning and left her home in Sisters, Oregon. She had planned a family visit that would require her to drive past the McKenzie River and to hop on I-5. But she couldn’t get out of town. The roads were closed.
High winds had downed trees and sparked a gazillion fires in an already too dry land. No, people, it is not true that Antifa has been going around Oregon setting fires. Please stop anyone who starts that rumor. Our Sheriff and Police department dispatches have been inundated with foolish phone calls about stupid conspiracy theories. People who have nothing better to do with their time than to sit around thinking up stupid shit.
I know this because my girlfriend Sheryle was smarter than me. She looked at the weekend weather report and saw that smoke was headed our way. She left town again. This time she went East, to that very town we all used to live in, the town where the firefighters camped long ago. That county is one of the few places in Oregon not under evacuation orders, not dealing with fire or toxic smoke. But when Sheryle went to check into the hotel, the hotel host gave her an earful about Antifa setting these fires.
Just stop, please.
On Tuesday of this week, I was texting back and forth with my girlfriend Julie as she and her husband received evacuation orders in Medford. “The Home Depot is on fire,” she said. We texted back and forth throughout that evening. She even took time during all of this to send me a Happy Birthday message and a book, even though it is not my birthday. Not even close. What would we do without our girlfriends? Julie’s home is fine, thankfully. Or it was yesterday.
To get home from the beach Konnie and her family had two choices, go further South and take backwoods highway, hoping there were no fires going to break out there, or head north up and around Portland and over Mount Hood. That was the way they thought they might take but figured out that they could take the more direct Highway 58 through Eugene and over the mountains. There were fires burning all around Eugene so it was a small window that they were able to get through. By Tuesday night all those places Konnie had been to at the beach were on fire. Lincoln City was burning up.
I should have gone out and bought an air purifier but, honestly, with a pandemic, I don’t go out. Starbucks and the produce market have been my go-tos. Whatever shopping I do, I do online and pickup orders.
Over in Salem, our family there helped out with the evacuees at the country fairgrounds. Even though, they themselves were dealing with fires all around the area. Friends have been packing and evacuating all over the state. It’s been reported that 10 percent of Oregon’s population is under evacuation orders. People have lost lives, homes, businesses, animals and mementos from a lifetime. There is story after story of people not having time to take anything because winds changed and fire directions changed and they had moments to flee. They literally walked through fires to escape.
I keep thinking about the animals. Not just the farm animals, of which there are so many throughout Oregon, but so much wildlife at risk. Julie and I, who often swap photos of birds, talked about that. She was worried about the alligator lizards that would burn up.
I checked in with my friend Lois who lives in Ashland, which has suffered from the fires. Lois wasn’t under evacuation orders, but was dealing with the toxic smoke from the nearby fires, like us. Ashland, in Southern Oregon, is primarily a retirement tourist area, best known for its Shakespearean Theater, which has been devastated by the pandemic. Some of our best activists make Ashland their home. So it was hardly surprising to learn from Lois that a local bike group had mobilized to help the firefighters and to help those who were now without power and water. They gathered together supplies and over a 100 bikers took off from Ashland to deliver water and aid to those in need. Over a 100 bikers!!! Probably wearing tie-dye tees. Angels of mercy on bikes. Some with bad knees and bad hips, helping.
Donation centers have been set up around the state. Trump, who still has not once mentioned the fires in California, Oregon or Washington, who has not expressed one sentiment of concern, did not respond to our governor’s request for federal help until last night. Nearly a week into this disaster.
This is the one true thing I know about disasters, after having been witness in the aftermath of Katrina, and various other disasters: It’s not the government who will help the most. It’s our neighbors. Churches. Civic organizations. Just good people mobilizing. These are the folks who run the donation centers and help get people what they need. Bikers. People with horse trailers. People with trucks. People wearing combat boots and flip-flops. Those are the helpers. Look for the helpers.
Rick Dancer, a journalist, has been reporting on the ways people are helping each other. You can find him on Instagram @RickDancer. He reported from a donation center in Springfield, Oregon, yesterday about all the ways folks are helping one another. Donations are still needed but the greatest needs are: Batteries. Cell phone chargers, diabetic testing kits, or anything else a diabetic might use, kids backpacks. Most donation centers get overload with clothes. Rick has put out the word that they don’t need or want any more clothes please. They need these items. Money is also gladly accepted.
Travel Oregon has listed the following as donation sites:
Donate Supplies to Evacuees
Across the state, evacuation points have been designated at schools and fairgrounds. Many of them are in need of supplies such as bandages, storage bags, diapers, flathead shovels, sleeping bags, tents, walkers, wheelchairs, prepackaged food, toiletries, cell phone chargers. Places that are collecting donations for evacuees include:
- Salem Chamber of Commerce (1110 Commercial St. NE, Salem)
- United Way of the Mid-Willamette Valley (455 Bliler Ave. NE, Salem)
- Marion County Fairgrounds (2330 17th St NE, Salem)
- Oregon State Fairgrounds (2330 17th St. NE, Salem)
- Silke Field at Springfield High School (908 10th St., Springfield)
- Chiloquin Fire and Rescue (156 S 2nd Ave., Chiloquin)
- Klamath Food Bank (3231 Maywood Dr., Klamath Falls)
- Klamath Falls Gospel Mission (1931 Mission Ave., Klamath Falls)
- Josephine County Fairgrounds (1451 Fairgrounds Rd., Grants Pass)
- Del Rio Vineyards (52 N River Rd, Gold Hill)
- The Expo (1 Peninger Rd, Central Point)
- Grange Co-op (225 S. Front St., Central Point)
- Ella Lane Boutique (739 Medford Center, Medford)
- Rogue Valley YMCA (522 W. 6th St., Medford)
- Family Nurturing Center (212 N. Oakdale Ave., Medford)
- Northwest Seasonal Workers Association (203 N. Oakdale Ave., Medford)
- Rogue Valley Mall (1600 N Riverside Ave, Medford)
- Ashland Elks Lodge #944 (255 E. Main St., Ashland)
- The Siskiyou School (631 Clay St., Ashland)
- Ashland High School (201 S. Mountain Ave., Ashland)
Masks and disposable gloves, hand sanitizers and wipes are also items that folks need.
Thank you to everyone who is asking about us. We are under terrible smoke. The worst air quality in the world right now, all across this region. We are truly on lockdown. As I type this our visibility is 500 yards and our air quality index is at 525. Otherwise known as hazardous. We are concerned for our grands breathing this and for those with compromised health systems.
If you have a moment, go wish Konnie a Happy Birthday. It’s her birthday tomorrow and she is devastated by what is going on throughout our state and overwhelmed caring for the babies and tending to her job. It is difficult to be cheerful when so many are hurting and we can’t get out of our homes. Not even to each other.
Pray for all those who have lost loved ones. I keep thinking of that young Wyatte Tofte clinging to his dog, praying for an escape. You can contribute to Wyatte’s family at GoFundMe. His mom is hospitalized with severe burns. His grandmother also died in the fires.
And pray for our firefighters. We have friends whose sons are on the frontlines of these fires and they report they are operating on several days without sleep. Even Mexico has sent in fire crews to help our firefighters. That’s what being a good neighbor looks like.
Do all the good that you can as long as you can, as the woman who would be president always says. Find a helper. Be a helper.
Karen Spears Zacharias lives in Deschutes County, Oregon, where she writes books sometimes.