Oregon wildfires putting family first through the worst
When Estacada resident Tony Long-Drew saw ominous plumes of smoke enveloping the town, he knew it was time to head for safety.
Long-Drew is one of hundreds — maybe thousands — of community members from the Sandy and Estacada areas who sought temporary places to call home as the Riverside, Dowty Road, Unger and Wilhoit fires carve a path through Clackamas County. Some evacuees are staying with friends and family, and others have found shelter at evacuation centers or hotels.
Long-Drew left town with his family on Monday evening, Sept. 7, and is now staying with friends in Gresham. He said the experience felt surreal.
"The morning after in Gresham felt like a dream. I asked myself, 'Did that really happen?'" he recalled, noting that the days sometimes blur together. "I've lost track of time. It's weird. I'm just taking it moment by moment."
Determining what to bring with them was a difficult decision.
"I'd never been through this before," Long-Drew said. "I said, 'let's grab some clothes.' I'm not a survivalist. It's hard to think of what you might need."
Long-Drew added that because he is visually impaired, he has a different perspective on the significant changes of this past week.
"I went from independent to dependent. That's been the hardest part," he said. "I'm used to being in Estacada. That's my security. I know where everything is, and I can get there on foot. In Estacada, I'm free to live my life. Up here, I'm more dependent because things are more spread out."
Though there are many uncertainties during this time, Long-Drew is happy to spend time with his friend Clint in Gresham.
"I've been trying to keep busy with my friend. He's a great person. I've just been living in his world," he said.
Meanwhile, George residents Dave and Mary Ann Bugni have been staying with Mary Ann's parents in Milwaukie. They left their home on Wednesday, Sept. 9.
"When we hit level two (evacuation) we decided to pack what we needed," Dave Bugni said. "We packed valuables like old photos and records, and our cat."
Since evacuating, they've been working to stay informed about the fire.
"We've been monitoring the reports to see how the fire has been progressing," Dave Bugni said, noting that it was about five miles from their home as of late last week.
He also recalled the 36 Pit Fire, which occurred in 2014, and required many community members to evacuate. The fire burned 5,521 acres near the Big Eddy, Lazy Bend and Memaloose areas, among others.
"This one is much more serious in terms of area. The distance and proximity (to our house) is the same, but the 36 Pit fire was mainly confined to the Clackamas River canyon," he said. "The big difference is that we didn't evacuate. The smoke was nothing like what it is now."
Along with staying informed about the fire, the Bugnis are also staying busy with several other activities.
"We've been helping Mary Ann's parents with home improvement projects and reading. You've got to stay busy," he said.
Mary Boyle was supposed to be working the evening when Estacada was evacuated due to the ever-growing Riverside Fire.
She had gone into the Estacada Dollar General around 4 p.m. Friday, Sept. 11, for her shift while keeping a close eye on evacuation updates. An hour later her boss sent her home with a simple order — get your family to safety.
For Boyle that wasn't the easiest direction. Sixteen people call her property in Estacada home, and everyone had sentimental items they wanted to bring with them. All the while thick, black smoke was darkening the sky.
They were able to get everything together and flee the home that has been in the family for 65 years. It was built by her grandfather, and losing it would be unimaginable. But Boyle said the most important thing was getting her loved ones to safety.
"Right now our house is still standing — though we could see the fire half a mile behind our property," Boyle said. "It was very scary."
Their many four-legged friends also got to safety. The family owns dogs, cats, goats and horses, all of which made it out. The smaller animals were simple — but for the horses Boyle turned to assistance on social media. She connected to a group of volunteers with horse trailers, and they were able to transport them safely to the Oregon State Fairgrounds.
The first night — Tuesday, Sept. 8 — they stayed with family in Barton, but the following morning realized it wasn't far enough from the fires. By Wednesday afternoon they had packed up again, making their way to the Damascus Safeway parking lot for respite and to restock supplies.
But Boyle still felt uncomfortable about the ever-encroaching fire and evacuation orders. So the family made one last move north, settling in the Mt. Hood Community College parking lot.
"This has been like a horrible nightmare we can't wake up from," Boyle said. "This finally feels far enough away — it might be smoky, but it's safe."
Kathy LaGrow and her eight-member family have been stationed in the Sandy Assembly of God Church parking lot in their camper since Wednesday, Sept. 9. While they were fortunate to get some of their larger belongings evacuated with them, LaGrow says "stuff can be replaced."
"We came here as a family," she explained. "The fact that we're here together is what's important."
The LaGrows used to attend the Sandy Assembly of God Church, so the church "graciously let us stay here."
Besides the human members of her family, LaGrow also had to pack up and move two dogs, three cats and two horses. While LaGrow herself was reluctant to leave her home of 19 years. She said the family llama was even more reluctant and remained in Estacada.
"We had a llama who wouldn't cooperate, but we left food and water," she explained. "Other than that, everyone's safe."
This isn't the first time the LaGrows have experienced a fire in Estacada, but this is the first time one has forced them to leave.
Still, she said, this event has caused the communities to unify after a very divisive few years.
"There's been a lot of community coming together," LaGrow said. "That's a good thing to see people helping and caring."
While several Estacada evacuees have made Sandy their second home for now, some of those within the Level 3 areas of rural Sandy have been pushed as far as Gresham.
Among them was Dayna Brown and her five children. Her husband stayed at the house for fear of possible looting, while Dayna took her kids to her mother's two-bedroom condo in Gresham.
The Browns left Sandy when their area of Firwood, east of Sandy, went from Level 1 to Level 3 evacuation status on Wednesday, Sept. 9, which happened to be the same day her second oldest child flew home from a mission trip in Germany.
"He didn't know we were evacuated until we picked him up (because of the time difference)," she said. "It was kind of a surprise to not be home for two years and come home to this."
Dayna added that overall her children — four of whom are still in school — have handled the upheaval pretty well.
Her youngest children, ages 7 and 13, have been attending online school and Dayna said their principal has been very understanding that school is not the top priority for their family right now. The Oregon Trail School District, where Dayna's two teenagers attend school, has also been understanding and actually delayed the opening date of this term to Sept. 21.
Though the thought of the fire turning and taking out their home of 15 years and whatever photos and personal items that were left behind was heart-wrenching for Dayna, she said they were more concerned about potential looters.
"We were more worried about ignorant people," Dayna said. "We work hard for what we have up there. We've had a lot of good memories up there. I think that's the hard part. But, at least we have somewhere to go. We're lucky to have family close by to bombard."
Similarly "lucky" were Karey and Steve Milne and their family. Karey and her daughter Ari have moved their motor home and three horses onto Steve's father's property in east Gresham. Steve has been back and forth, keeping an eye on the property.
Karey says she started packing "go-bags" on Tuesday thinking they may have to leave. Then by noon the next day her area on Trubel Road jumped from Level 1 to Level 3. Karey has lived in that area of Sandy since she was born in the 1970s.
Karey's mother has lived there since 1959, which made leaving even harder for her. That is where she lived with her husband until he passed away unexpectedly in 1994. She is staying with her sister and her nephew in the Damascus area.
One of the most difficult aspects of leaving for Karey was finding a place for their horses. She called around to multiple places, had one location fall through, then was happy to hear her father-in-law extend an invitation to her two-legged and four-legged family members.
"It's been a surreal experience," Karey said. "Never have I ever had to do that in my lifetime. And it's harder when you have animals."
Besides the horses, the Milnes also had to move four dogs, a cat and a gecko.
"This all kind of makes you think about what's important and what's not," Karey said. "I don't want to lose my house, but it's just a structure. (People should) be prepared. Have your important stuff with you and don't be too fearful of people looting to leave. It's better to keep yourself safe."
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