Students are distance learning so fire staff have taken over the parking lot and school

COURTESY PHOTO: GRESHAM-BARLOW SCHOOL DISTRICT - Gresham-Barlow school board members and superintendent feed the firefighting staff camped at Barlow High School before the command center catering trucks were fully functional. Sodexo Group, which runs the school cafeteria, donated the food.

About 250 firefighting personnel have thronged Barlow High School, taking over the expansive parking lot, ballfields and parts of the school buildings, creating a small, bustling city.

"We're super happy to have them here and happy to provide them the space," said Bruce Schmidt, principal of Barlow.

Although the encampment was humming with activity last week, it is the Riverside Fire Incident Command Center and there are few frontline firefighters at the site. The workers at Barlow are in logistics, finance information and other support services to the firefighters.

Firefighters come to Barlow from the field to pick up food, supplies and for other tasks. Meals are mostly grab and go. Due to the COVID pandemic distancing rules, the usual big communal meals are not possible.

"The school is a great facility," said Michelle Fidler, the public information officer for the command center.

Command center staff can be out of the weather to work and sleep, although some workers have preferred to set up tents on the athletic fields rather than sleep on cots in the gym. Fidler said many of the frontline firefighters are staying in hotels in the area.

The school's locker rooms provide hot showers. The building already is equipped with fast internet service.

The fire staff has taken over 15 classrooms, the cafeteria, the auxiliary gym and the media center, Schmidt said.

PMG PHOTO: TERESA CARSON - Michelle Fidler, public information officer for the Riverside Fire Incident Command Center, stands by a sign at Barlow's front door that thanks the schools staff and students.

The Riverside Fire started Sept. 8, in Clackamas County south of Estacada. It continues to burn despite the recent rains. It has scorched more than 138,000 acres and was about 34% contained as of Thursday, Sept. 24. More than 680 fire personnel from 27 states were assigned to the blaze at its height.

Students are not in the buildings this school year because the pandemic has them learning remotely from home.

But Schmidt said students have had to come and check out textbooks and laptop computers. Those handoffs have occurred without a hitch, even with the command center operations.

"It has been such a minor inconvenience for major support to the firefighting effort," Schmidt said.

The school's custodians and some other staff are working in the building to support and help the firefighting employees, Schmidt said.

The incident command workers have been very thoughtful guests, Schmidt said. For example, they've used blue painter's tape to attach signs to the newly remodeled and painted walls at Barlow so they will not cause any damage.

Principal Schmidt said he and the district and school staff have been thrilled to help out by hosting the Command Center. "A lot of people are suffering. People have lost everything. We are just glad to be able to help in some way."

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