10 months after Riverside Fire, local family still homeless
Two days after evacuating from their home as the Riverside Fire encroached on the area, Estacada residents John and Stephanie Dodson returned to find the house lost to the flames.
"It was still on fire when we got there. The structure was all gone. It was just a steel roof laying on the ground," John said.
"When he drove up and couldn't see the outline of the house, I knew something was wrong," Stephanie added.
Last fall, the 140,000 acre Riverside Fire and nearby Dowty Road Fire destroyed 150 structures, 50 of which were homes. Some people have been able to rebuild. But 10 months after the flames came within a half mile of Estacada city limits, John, Stephanie, and their teenage children, Joseph and Kira, are still searching for a place to live.
Along with finding somewhere affordable, the family also needs a unit that is ADA accessible. Stephanie uses a wheelchair after a spinal cord injury in early 2020.
The Dodsons are staying at the Shilo Inn in Salem, which was paid for by the state until Friday, July 16. Prior to that, they stayed at the Residence Inn in downtown Portland, the Hoxton in downtown Portland, the Monarch Hotel in Clackamas and the Red Fox Motel in Estacada.
"The problem with us versus the other fire affected families was, I have to have a room that I can actually get in," Stephanie said, noting that they stayed at the Residence Inn for around nine months before an event led to a lack of space at the hotel. They were at the Red Fox for one night before the entire town of Estacada was placed under evacuation. "It was like hotel hopping, and moving from one location to another."
The Dodsons hope to find somewhere to live as close to Estacada as possible but have found the process difficult. They estimated that the need for ADA accessibility eliminates around half of the places they've considered.
"The housing market is way out there, and with Estacada, there's very few things available. It's a constant struggle, and we really want to stay as close to the community as possible," Stephanie said.
Around 11 p.m. Saturday, July 3, Stephanie and John were returning to Salem after spending the day searching for apartments around Portland. They were driving on I-5 near Woodburn when their car caught on fire.
A check engine light had warned them about oil pressure and said to stop safely, but before they were able to, the hood of the car was engulfed in flames.
"(John) managed to get me out of the car and got me the walker, then he ran back and got the electric wheelchair off the back of the car," Stephanie recalled.
Though the aftermath of the incident was "complete chaos," the Dodsons are grateful for those who helped them that night.
"One of the good samaritans that stopped was a traffic control officer, so if there was an accident he would set out the cones and flares. So he managed to see it going the opposite way down the freeway so he turned around and came in (to) help," Stephanie said, noting that he also brought some of their items back to Salem. "We wanted to thank him but then he just disappeared, kind of like Batman."
The vehicle, a Volvo XC90 that was their only mode of transporting Stephanie's wheelchair, was totaled. They determined that the fire was caused by an oil malfunction.
Some of the family's items are still in the car, but they are waiting to be able to pay $875 in towing fee so they can retrieve them. Additionally, several hundred dollars worth of restaurant gift cards were lost in the fire.
The Dodsons have been searching for places to live across the region, though they hope to remain as close to Estacada as possible.
They have had difficulty finding options within Estacada itself.
A 2019 Housing Needs Analysis found that from 2013-17, 78% of Estacada's housing was single-family detached. Between February 2015 and February 2019, the city's median average housing sale price rose from $234,900 to $299,900, a 28% increase.
The family has found high costs to be an issue that extends beyond just Estacada.
"Rent is so astronomical," Stephanie said. "We're looking at renting a two bedroom (apartment) and living in the living room. And the kids can have their own rooms, and we'll be in a common area, which is fine."
Wheelchair accessibility has been another significant barrier.
John noted that if the building has even just one step outside, he needs to be able to build a ramp over it. But the ramp cannot interfere with the sidewalk, so the unit needs to be set back to allow for space. He estimated that this eliminates about 50% of what's available.
"It's those little things that people don't think about because they aren't affected by it," Stephanie said, noting that the doors need to be wide enough for a wheelchair. "For us, it's probably the first thing we think about."
The Dodsons moved to Estacada from Oregon City in 2015 to get a fresh start after one of their older children was kidnapped and assaulted by a former friend of the family. Both were found by police several days later. The kidnapping occured in late 2013 and spanned four days.
"Part of the healing process from that was to kind of distance ourselves from other people. That was a big reason why we wanted to move that far out of town," Stephanie said.
Though they moved to gain more space from others, they came to appreciate the community in Estacada.
"It's a community of people helping other people," Stephanie said. We really miss that, and just going into a business and they know who you are and remember what you ordered last time, or they remember that you were looking for a certain thing and now they have one."
The family has applied for an apartment in Sandy. They hope it works out, in part because of the proximity to Estacada.
"It's that feeling of community, or belonging to something. It's sort of like a big church, but not religious. You feel the inclusiveness," Stephanie said.
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