Eagle Creek Fire evacuees find solace in Lake Oswego
Cascade Locks isn't Layla McLean's hometown, but it might as well be.
The Lake Oswego resident and local attorney grew up in Hawaii, but she spent many summers and holidays frolicking in the Columbia River Gorge, where her grandparents and countless other family members have lived since before she can remember.
So when the Eagle Creek Fire started over Labor Day weekend, threatening Cascade Locks and surrounding areas, the anxiety the fire caused for so many residents of the Gorge hit close to home for McLean.
"It's devastating. It's scary. Our family owns seven homes next to each other. We call it The Compound," McLean said. "They've had fires before in the Gorge, but obviously nothing to this extent."
On Sept. 2, McLean's family was alerted to the fire, which was allegedly started by a group of teenagers dropping fireworks into the canyon near the Eagle Creek trailhead in the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area. By Sept. 5, the blaze had covered more than 10,000 acres and threatened to creep down the ridge just above Cascade Locks — home to more than 1,100 people, including McLean's grandmother, Jean, and her three aunts, Kari, Sandy and Marilyn.
"Tuesday (Sept. 5) morning, I came to work and I knew they were at a Level Two evacuation, which means you have the cars ready, facing out of the driveway with the animals in their crates and ready to go. When you get the siren or knock on the door, you have to get in the car and leave," she said.
McLean shared her family's story of impending evacuation with her co-workers at Buckley Law P.C. in Lake Oswego. That prompted her boss, Rob Le Chevallier, to make a quick call to Keith Dickerson at the Lake Oswego Chamber of Commerce. Dickerson then contacted the Grand Hotel at Bridgeport, where staff made arrangements for McLean's family to stay.
McLean was worried that the arrangements were being made in vain, because her family was set on staying put. But an approaching fire line finally forced them to evacuate, and they headed for Lake Oswego on Sept. 5.
"I'm so impressed by the firm here, the unsolicited kindness and generosity, everyone's time and effort — particularly Keith at the Chamber, who doesn't know me or my family," McLean said. "It made me very proud to be a part of the Lake Oswego community and reminded me of what makes this city so special."
For Dickerson, who serves as the Chamber's executive director and also as pastor at Hope Community Church, helping McLean's family was all in a day's work. After calling several local hotels and finding many of them booked up, he turned outside of the Chamber's directory to ask the Grand Hotel if they'd be willing to help.
As a local minister, Dickerson was able to acquire partial funding for the rooms from his church. But when he called back to discuss the details with hotel General Manager Bill Sheldon, Sheldon told him the church should keep its money for another time. The rooms would provided at no charge, he said.
"What this says about Lake Oswego is that this community is tuned in to connecting resources to people who are in genuine need," Dickerson said.
McLean said the act of kindness was particularly touching to her aunt Sandy, who works in hospitality herself as the manager of the Columbia River Inn Best Western in Cascade Locks. McLean's mother and fellow Lake Oswegan, Karen Anderson, was also deeply touched and expressed her heartfelt gratitude in an email to Le Chavallier, Dickerson and Sheldon.
"Having a good meal and clean bed to rest was so gratefully received by them all. Words cannot adequately express their appreciation," Anderson wrote. "Heartfelt thanks. What a wonderful thing you all did, what a magnificent representation of our home town. Makes me proud to be a resident of Lake Oswego."
After one night at the Grand Hotel at Bridgeport, McLean's family was able to stay with family in Vancouver for a night before returning to Cascade Locks, where they're keeping a close eye on the fire that has now burned more than 35,600 acres and is just 13 percent contained.
According to McLean, traffic around the fire's perimeter is causing headaches for residents of Cascade Locks and the surrounding areas. She warns people to stay away from the area until the fire is under control for the benefit of both firefighting crews and local residents like her family, who are still trying to protect their homes from falling ash and embers.