Pandemic, protests & fire
COVID-19. The pandemic. It defined much of life in Jefferson County and the entire planet in 2020. And it's not over. As we race to get vaccines in arms, we brace for what are expected to be numbing infection and death rates in the early months of 2021.
COVID and its economic and societal impacts touched everyone in 2020, and played a role in nearly all aspects of life. But the year also brought a once-a-century-type windstorm to the county in May and saw one of the largest wildfires in Oregon history spark in August on the Warm Springs Reservation.
Even with a pandemic hovering, 2020 was also a year of protests in the nation, and not only in cities. Several protests occurred in Jefferson County during the year — maybe more than in any year previous — ranging from a robust Black Lives Matter protest, to political season marches, to Open Oregon rallies.
2020 was unforgettable, and it will leave a permanent stamp on our collective psyches and ways of life. Choosing the biggest, most important stories for the year is never easy. But we feel it's hard to argue with the impact these five stories had during this year unlike any other.
1. A microscopic virus dominated all news in the world, the country and in Jefferson County. COVID-19 touched every life on the planet. In Jefferson County, the disease took the lives of 16 people. A total of 1380 people tested positive for the virus, of those, 114 had symptoms so severe they needed to be hospitalized.
Of all the counties in Oregon, Jefferson is one of the hardest hit. The county has among the highest rates of infection, 738 per hundred thousand. The state average for the same period was 456 cases per hundred thousand. Within the county, the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs suffered by far the greatest number of casualties. Almost all coronavirus related deaths in Jefferson County were tribal members.
When the United States first started to feel the effects of the pandemic, no one knew exactly what to expect or how to combat the spread. Efforts to slow transmission of the virus had severe economic impacts.
On March 8, even before Jefferson County reported its first case, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown declared a state of emergency. She issued a stay-at-home order, closing all but essential businesses. Gyms, theaters, salons, all closed. Dentist offices, eye doctors, physical therapists all shuttered their doors. Restaurants were closed and later allowed to offer take-out and delivery.
Unemployment soared. According to Oregon's Employment Department, by June in Jefferson, Crook and Deschutes counties between 18 and 24% of the workforce were without work. The flood of unemployment claims overwhelmed the state. People waited for months before seeing their first claim checks.
Businesses boomed for "essential businesses," like grocery stores and delivery services. Shoppers emptied the shelves of toilet paper, hand sanitizer and disinfectants, canned vegetables, beans and pasta.
Initially hospitals did not have enough Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). They ran low on masks, gloves and disposable gowns. People around the world, including Madras, took it upon themselves to make masks. Businesses diverted their manufacturing to create face shields for medical personnel.
Brown issued a mask mandate, which invited lawsuits and divided our community into mask-wearers and anti-maskers, pitting community health against individual freedom.
Gradually, as the numbers of new cases began to plateau, restrictions lifted somewhat. Restaurants were allowed limited indoor seating with assurances of social distancing, and summer allowed for outdoor dining.
Then as cold weather moved people indoors, the number of coronavirus cases surged. Mid-November Brown initiated a two week "pause," closing gyms, limiting restaurants to take-out and delivery orders, and reducing gathering sizes at places of worship. After two weeks, infection rates stayed high. The restrictions continued for businesses in Jefferson County, and in most counties across the state.
Millions of dollars poured in from the federal government and other sources to support businesses and individuals. Residents received checks for $1,200, businesses received grants ranging from $1,500 for a day care center to $205,000 for the Madras cinemas.
Dec. 1, Deer Ridge Correctional Institute east of Madras experienced a severe outbreak. Of the 675 inmates, there were 111 active cases in the prison population at one point, and in a staff of 200, a high of 34 positive COVID tests. As of late December, two inmates died while diagnosed with COVID.
In the last days of the year, two coronavirus vaccines made their way across the country and to Central Oregon. The first to receive the injections in Jefferson County were on the Warm Springs Reservation, the area that suffered the most from the virus.
2. When COVID-19 began showing up in Oregon, Gov. Kate Brown ordered schools to close across the state beginning Monday, March 16. It was supposed to be for only two weeks – an extended spring break.
Those two weeks ended up being the rest of the 2019-2020 school year. Students and teachers eventually transitioned to distance learning – teachers taught in front of computer screens, and students logged on to various online platforms to learn their lessons. Students received pass/no pass instead of traditional letter grades on their report cards.
As early September and the start of a fresh school year approached, it became apparent that students would not be able to return to classrooms full time. Jefferson County and Culver school district leaders went to work, creating plans to give families some options.
The 509-J district offered Comprehensive Distance Learning, which allowed teachers, students and classmates to remain connected and engaged with district content materials while working from a distance. Families could also choose CASA Online, a more flexible fully online learning format.
School began the week of Labor Day with students using district-issued Chromebooks and either their home Wi-Fi or district hotspots. Students logged in each morning to get their lessons and often used the afternoon for homework.
By November, select 509-J students were allowed to come to school buildings for Limited In-Person Instruction, but that stopped in mid-December as local COVID cases increased.
Culver School District offered three options: Comprehensive Distance Learning with on-site support; full-time Comprehensive Distance Learning with teacher-guided instruction via Google Classroom on a computer; or teacher-designed paper packet work without internet and computers.
Because Culver is a small district with roughly 650 students, state guidelines allowed for the majority of the students to be onsite for two hours a day, five days a week for Limited In-Person Instruction beginning Sept. 14.
Culver continued with that model until COVID-19 cases increased in the region and substitutes were hard to come by for positive COVID-19 staff members and those who had to quarantine. The two hours of on-site learning were halted one week before winter break.
Although challenging for most students, distance learning was especially difficult for rural families who had poor internet connection, the parents work outside of the home, and those with small children.
Two days before Christmas, Gov. Brown announced new rules for school re-openings, making former directives optional and allowing districts to open if they follow safety precautions.
3. Labor Day 2020 in Oregon will forever be remembered for the massive windstorm that turned ordinary wildfires into great infernos that destroyed thousands of acres of forests and choked the region in unhealthy smoke.
On that fateful Monday, Warm Springs Fire Management crews were fighting two fires on the Warm Springs Reservation. The P-515 fire was about 4,600 acres and fully contained. The other was the Lionshead fire, about 18,000 acres in size and roughly 30% contained. Firefighters eventually united the two fires by burning the area between the two to help manage the Lionshead fire.
Lightning had ignited the fires on Aug. 16. The Lionshead fire burned in Lionshead Canyon on the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs Reservation approximately 14 miles west of the Warm Springs community. Although difficult to contain because of its remote location, it was an ordinary fire – that is, until the evening of Sept. 7.
A cold front from Canada brought an unusual easterly wind that fanned the Lionshead fire into a deadly, roaring beast.
Cold air from northeast of the Cascades met with warm air from the west side of the mountains, and the winds howled that Monday evening, rapidly spreading the fire west onto the Willamette, Deschutes and Mt. Hood National Forests. The windstorm continued through the night and on into Wednesday, Sept. 9. By then, the fire had grown to 118,000 acres.
By Thursday, the winds had shifted back to a normal west to east direction, but it blew forest fire smoke back into Central Oregon. Jefferson County was choked in thick, hazardous smoke. By Sept. 12, the Madras air quality index was 611 – some of the worst on the planet.
Rain finally fell on the fire Sept. 18-19, which slowed the fire activity and helped improve the air quality. By Sept. 24, there were 1,370 people working on the fire, which was only 15% contained.
Scattered showers and cooler temperatures the following week helped crews, and by Oct. 5, the Lionshead fire was 47.5% contained and 204,412 acres. Long-term recovery efforts began.
By Oct. 16, the fire was well contained but still burning in the perimeter. Crews figure 204,469 acres burned, 97,000 of which were on the Warm Springs Reservation.
A week later, the Warm Springs Tribal Council approved the Emergency Lionshead Salvage Project Assessment—a plan to salvage dead and dying trees, protect resources within the burned area, allow collection of firewood for tribal elders and the collection of herbs to treat respiratory illness, and control the growth of brush that could compete with huckleberry bushes.
The fire was fully contained on Oct. 30.
The Lionshead Fire heavily impacted several communities in the Santiam drainage and Breitenbush area, including the loss of 264 resident homes in Detroit. Highly valued natural and cultural resources were also threatened. Long-term recovery efforts will take years.
4. Huge winds, violent hail and driving rain left a trail of unearthed trees and damaged structures during one of the most destructive weather events in Jefferson County history.
The thunderstorm and windstorm began around 1:45 p.m. Saturday, May 30 and moved on at 3 p.m., leaving in its path much destruction and millions in property damage. It produced winds between 70 and 100 miles per hour, according to the National Weather Service. The swath of extreme straight-line winds mainly affected the Culver and Metolius areas of Jefferson County.
The storm left numerous large trees uprooted or snapped, hundreds of yards of irrigation line dislodged and mangled, and several broken or leaning power poles. The storm destroyed a handful of agricultural outbuildings, damaged a few homes, and affected high-tension power line structures. Farmers' crops were destroyed by the heavy hail and rain, and power was out for a few days in some areas.
Although it looked and acted like a tornado, a team from the National Weather Service in Pendleton found that the thunderstorm and windstorm that ripped through the region that Saturday afternoon was not actually a tornado.
Despite the intensity of the damage, a National Weather Service survey team found that most of the damage was blown either from south to north or from southwest to northeast. That indicates the prevalence of a divergent straight-line wind pattern rather than the circular convergent pattern associated with a tornado.
Based on the damage, the team determined that wind speeds in the most affected area ranged from 60 to 70 mph for the lower-end damage of trees, irrigation lines and outbuildings, and 80 to 100 mph for the most significant destruction. Winds within an EF-1 tornado range from 86 to 109 miles per hour.
Although the storm caused significant damage to property and trees, no injuries or deaths were reported.
5. The nation split sharply over many issues in 2020, prompting protests from all quarters, and the people of Madras took part.
In June, Madras citizens took up against racism and police brutality. About 150 people marched from the plaza at the north end of Madras to City Hall in support of Black Lives Matter, and against the deaths of people like George Floyd, who died in Minneapolis, Minnesota, when an officer kneeled on his neck for more than eight minutes, and Breonna Taylor, killed when police raided her home in Louisville, Kentucky.
"It's about police brutality, but not local police brutality," said Chris Goodman, a Black man who lives in Madras. He says the sheriff and police officers have gone out of their way to make him feel welcome.
"I think it's really amazing to have all these people fighting for one cause."
Police facilitated the march. Demonstrators made their point clearly. "Say their names!" without the riots or looting seen in bigger cities.
This fall people from Madras also railed against the COVID restrictions preventing Oregon businesses from making money. Under the banner "Open Oregon," a group called People Rights waved signs along Highway 97 signaling their support for businesses. They criticized Gov. Kate Brown for overreaching her authority, overreacting to the threat of the coronavirus, and strangling the economic health of Oregon businesses.
At a similar protest in Bend, a Madras teacher reacted strongly in an outburst recorded on video. She raged, "I'm a teacher. My students are dying." And "Kill yourselves." The 55-second video went viral on social media and quickly passed 2 million views. The teacher was put on leave.
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.