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Rural West Linn community rallies to support those in need during devastating fires

PMG PHOTO: HOLLY BARTHOLOMEW - Ellen Urbani and her family, who live on Pete's Mountain in West Linn have taken in hundreds of animals evacuated from wildfires over the past several days.Horses. Cattle. Llamas. Goats. Chickens. Pigs. Dogs. Ducks. Rabbits. Over 200 animals of all sorts were spared from wildfires thanks to a handful of residents of Pete's Mountain in rural West Linn. Close to a dozen households in Pete's Mountain, several of which have pastureland and animals of their own, began taking in animals Tuesday, Sept. 8 as multiple wildfires tore through Clackamas County.

One of those Pete's Mountain residents, Ellen Urbani, said she and her family began preparing to evacuate when a fire started not far from their house Monday night, Sept. 7.

PMG PHOTO: HOLLY BARTHOLOMEW - Lisa Battan and her family took in about 15 different animals forced to evacuate. "We actually saw the transformer explode from our bedroom window," Urbani said. "The fire started and we could see fire from our house. We were preparing to evacuate."

Firefighters from Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue were able to tackle the fire by Tuesday and no one on Pete's Mountain had to evacuate.

Urbani's family quickly realized that others weren't so lucky.

"When we woke up Tuesday and realized others were in the position we thought we would have been in the night before, our first thought was, 'Well, we're safe. We were spared. So let's offer to somebody else the thing that we had needed,'" Urbani said.

Urbani took to social media offering up their land to animals forced to flee. Noting that this wasn't the moment for typical privacy concerns, Urbani included her phone number in the posts.

"My phone started ringing off the hook," she said.

Urbani got in touch with her "big-hearted" neighbors who she knew had land and would be willing to help.

Her and her family formed a makeshift dispatch service, taking in calls, listing who needed help — and where — as well as what resources they and their neighbors could offer.

Eventually, Urbani found the Facebook page "Cowgirl 911" which had a following of people all over the state, listing their needs and offering their help. Cowgirl 911 organized mass evacuations, supply runs, food runs and more, Urbani said. So many more animals would have been lost if it weren't for that group, she said, remarking that this may be the first time social media has helped mobilize such a large amount of citizen aid following a major disaster in Oregon.

Urbani and her neighbor, 19-year-old Ava Reisman, joined a caravan of trucks and trailers driving straight into flames around Estacada Tuesday.

"I've been in the position where I've needed help before and people helped me. And under no circumstances was it going to be possible not to help someone else," Urbani said.

Urbani, who has a cast on each foot due to a broken ankle and broken foot, said she couldn't have done it all without Reisman.

She recalled one moment when Reisman had to lift and carry a llama into the trailer after it laid down in the road, despite the fast approaching flames.

Between the several runs back and forth from Estacada to Pete's Mountain, and the dozens of people bringing animals to her property, Urbani said she never went to bed Tuesday night.

Whitney Heros, who lives just down the street from Urbani and took in pigs, goats, chickens and ducks, said perhaps the biggest challenge of the past several days was finding time to sleep.

But for Heros, helping out the people and animals in need was instinctual.

PMG PHOTO: HOLLY BARTHOLOMEW - Lisa Battan has taken in goats, llamas, pigs and more animals that were evacuated from wildfires. "It's just part of who we are. It wasn't a question," she said.

A similar desire to help took over for Lisa Battan, another Pete's Mountain resident and Reisman's mom. She took in 15 pigs, llamas and goats that fled Estacada, Silverton, Molalla, Oregon City and Beavercreek.

Urbani said Battan stepped up to take the animals who required extra help like bottle feeding or medication.

The help offered by Pete's Mountain residents to those devastated by fires extends well beyond refuge for animals. Urbani said while about a dozen households took in animals, several others without land helped by bringing water, food and other supplies for evacuees. Others still have helped by caring for the animals.

When friends and family of Heros heard what she was doing, they immediately began donating to help. This allowed Heros to provide gas cards for those transporting rescued animals, as well as feed for other locations throughout the area that took in animals.

Urbani, who along with her husband grows hay on their property, said they gave away this year's entire harvest when they realized animals sheltering at the county fairgrounds would be short on feed.

"We are in a blessed position at the moment where we can give our harvest away," she said.

Within two hours after her husband suggested donating the hay, it was gone.

Urbani remarked that she has seen something "holy" in the way strangers have come together to help one another over the past week. She said she noticed this holiness for the first time as she drove in a caravan of trucks and trailers straight past flames, with the main fire not far off, to help strangers who were worse off.

She recalled another beautiful moment from last Thursday when people were coming to pick up hay.

"One guy jumped out and we were talking as we were loading hay into his truck," she recounted. "Somebody asked 'what compelled you to drive out here and offer to help?' and he said 'well my house burned down this morning and I thought it would be better for my spirit if I spent the day helping somebody else instead of sitting around feeling sorry for myself.'"

When things were most dire, when people faced fire racing toward their homes, the crew of strangers instinctively put themselves in harm's way without question.

PMG PHOTO: HOLLY BARTHOLOMEW -  Barbara Knudsen, of Molalla speaks with one of her horses who was evacuated to Urbani's property in West Linn."Nobody asked. Nobody cared," Urbani said. "You were beside 12 people that you would probably have never sat down to dinner with in your life, people that may have refused to speak with you on a street corner, and we were linking arms and hoisting animals and throwing each other our keys and telling people to stay the night at your house."

During the most critical moments, all of the divisiveness plaguing the country fell away, she said. But the suspension of conflict was short-lived.

"Thursday night we had a line of trucks and trailers that went up and down our entire property and then out onto the street and everybody is helping everyone. But then it starts to calm down a bit. That's the day these rumors (about Antifa) had all started," Urbani said.

"I'm leading an injured horse belonging to a stranger with two casts on my feet and some of the people are saying, 'It's those Black Lives Matter supporters. They've done all this.' And I'm walking around, giving a home to their animals but they are saying these things about me."

Urbani's foot was broken when, earlier this summer, she joined the famous "Wall of Moms" to protest police brutality on the streets of Portland (Time Magazine published an article about her experiences at the protests).

"That's what the great irony is. They were so grateful to me, and yet they were talking so harshly about me, they just didn't realize that it was me they were talking about," Urbani said.

While it was difficult to listen to the people she was helping talk about her in that way, Urbani noted that particular challenge was dwarfed by the pain and suffering caused by the fires.

Both Urbani and Reisman remarked on the gut-wrenching devastation they felt Thursday night as they made a rescue run to Estacada.

"Everything was erupting around us and that's when the alerts came out that the firefighters were fleeing on foot," Urbani said. "The phones are beeping with alerts saying 'Get out. Get out.' but we're heading in."

At the moment, Urbani was on the phone with a woman who fled and was pleading for them to save her animals.

"Ava and I had driven into flames the night before, but it was contained. This night, the firefighters had all left and I had to make the decision to turn around and leave," Urbani said. "The woman on the phone was begging me to go on but I had to hang up on her because it was so distressing."

Riesman and Urbani said it was awful to turn around without the woman's animals, but they tried to focus on the ones they could save.

"You can't get through to the next day if you focus on what you failed to do," Urbani said.

And it's incredible when you look at the ones they saved.

Several horses from Barbara Knudsen's Big Star Ranch in Molalla are now at Urbani's property. Knudsen said she was unbelievably grateful to Urbani and all those who helped.

Urbani, Heros and Battan said they've also been incredibly grateful to those who've offered to help over the past week, but said the real need is yet to come.

"This isn't over. People are going to be in need for weeks, months or even years," Heros said. "Being available and just enthusiastic for helping people in the long run I think is going to be just as, or even more important."

Entire communities need to be rebuilt, Urbani said. And for as long as that takes, people are going to need support.

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