Clackamas Community College is 'home' for wildfire evacuees
Hundreds of evacuees from communities affected by the several wildfires burning throughout Clackamas County trickled in and out of Clackamas Community College on Wednesday as evacuation orders remain in effect and firefighters continue to try and bring the blazes to heel.
On Thursday, county officials announced the Red Cross shelter is being moved again, with RVs stationing at the Clackamas Town Center.
But for one day, recreational vehicles, travel trailers, fifth wheels and even large animal trailers lined the parking lots of both the college and Oregon City High School as those uprooted from their homes took shelter from the smoke that is currently choking out their towns.
By noon on Wednesday, many of the cars and motorhomes that filled the CCC parking lot beginning Tuesday night had left, either temporarily or permanently to seek other accommodations. With the help of the American Red Cross, many evacuees sought hotel rooms in Oregon City and other nearby communities of Gladstone and Clackamas.
"As you can imagine, finding hotels for the number of people that need them across the state of Oregon is quite difficult," said Dale Kunce, chief executive officer of the Red Cross' Cascades Region. "Numbers here (at CCC) have fluctuated. It's a disaster, but people still have to go to work, so maybe after work we'll see people return, grab a meal and a spot to sleep."
Many of those that remained at the college throughout Wednesday planned to stay put in order to remain close to their homes in areas such Beavercreek, Molalla, Mulino and Colton.
Beavercreek resident Paula Hartland and her family said their property along Upper Highland Road was only on a Level 2 evacuation order. But when they saw the glow of the Unger Road Fire over the hill behind their house, they decided to pack up their trailer, load up the family, animals and belongings and head down to OCHS to escape the smoke.
According to Hartland, they didn't want to take any chances of missing the Level 3 "GoNow" order and being taken by surprise.
"The frustrating part about this is I signed up for the county's public alerts, and I'm not getting anything," Hartland said.
Hartland echoed a sentiment that many of the evacuees shared — the best source of information is coming from Facebook, where community members are compiling and organizing information from several sources.
Hartland said that a Clackamas County Sheriff's Deputy lives in her neighborhood and his wife was funneling information to neighbors via phone calls and having them dispense those updates down the line.
"There are about 12 of us that are really active on a group message texting back and forth," Hartland said. "People are just kind of pinging each other, asking what things look like, will they check on our house when they're up there, that kind of thing."
While Hartland and her neighbors are fortunate to still be able to access the roads near their homes, some closer to the fires aren't so lucky.
That leads to a lot of anxiety provoking guess work as to what's going on with your home, said Elaine Lowell, of Colton.
Lowell said her husband works for a local telephone company and has continued to work with local fire authorities to identify certain utilities and wires running through areas near the fires. According to Lowell, about midday Wednesday the road to their house was barricaded and her husband couldn't get close enough to give an update as to whether their home was still standing.
"I had a coworker call and say their parents' house burnt down, and that's really close to our house," Lowell said. "It's been a lot of phone calls, a lot of checking Facebook."
One silver lining of this situation, Lowell said, is that she's felt closer to her neighbors and community than she has in several months due to being isolated through the COVID-19 pandemic.
"It's made us feel really good realizing how close our community is," she said.
Throughout the day, community members from Oregon City and its surrounding neighbors descended on both the college and OCHS to bring water, snacks and food to those who had been forced to evacuate.
Pizzas, sub sandwiches and packs of bottle water were plentiful as those who sat in their cars and trailers waited for updates. Happy Valley Pizza Schmizza, Gladstone Baskin Robbins and blues singer Rae Gordon will team up to serve lunch to neighbors displaced by wildfires at noon on Friday, Sept. 11, at camps surrounding CCC.
Brian Eldridge, associate pastor with Mountain View Church, made rounds offering anyone who wanted food a pizza in the parking lot of OCHS.
Less than a quarter mile away, as Denise Everhart of Molalla explained her evacuation experience, a man approached with a stack of pizzas, saying that Domino's had driven by with a truck full of free pizzas.
She accepted the pizza and went on to talk about how she was somewhat prepared for an incident like this due to her profession being a Division Disaster Executive with the Red Cross where she oversees disaster management in Alaska, Washington, Montana, Idaho, Oregon, California and the Pacific Islands. Her husband is also a volunteer with the Molalla Fire Department, so between the two they had a solid finger on the pulse of what might transpire.
"I had just gotten back from California working those wildfires as this storm had started," Everhart said. "Monday night, I didn't feel good about the whole thing and I kept saying that, hoping I was overreacting because of all the other fires I'd been exposed to."
According to Everhart, she and her husband were on their way to a friend's house to pick up some fresh produce when her husband's pager went off calling him to a fire.
That's when she decided to grab her parents — who also live in Molalla — and take them to a hotel in Clackamas. She also turned on her sprinkler system, packed up her camper van with her valuables and headed out to the college to camp with her dog Angus while her husband continued to fight the fires.
As more evacuees flee their homes and communities Wednesday evening, more facilities and space at both Clackamas Community College and Oregon City High School are being opened up and administered by the Red Cross. While donations of water and snacks are appreciated, Kunce said, the best thing anyone who wants to help their neighbors can do right now is to make a financial donation.
Financial donations, according to Kunce, allows the Red Cross to be flexible and provide evacuees with what they need at that moment rather than having a bunch of pallets of food or water they might not be able to use. Those looking to make a donation can do so by visiting www.redcross.org.
Estacada's Dow family considered themselves lucky to have made it to Oregon City, where Clackamas Community College's campus was acting as a campground for wildfire refugees.
Brent Dow said he was exhausted, but thankful to have made it out with his wife, Shanna; two sons Kory and Jaydon; and their two tortoises, two dogs and seven chickens.
"I spent Labor Day weekend clearing our fence line, and then I wondered if I had built a giant tinder pile in my backyard," Dow said. "At least we were able to pack up our cars with photographs and anything else that's irreplaceable before we had to leave.
Five minutes after they receive notification of level 3 on Sept. 9, indicating evacuation right away, the Dows saw their postal carrier from USPS who asked if they wanted their mail for the day. They were glad to receive the car parts they had on order as they drove out of town.
Once on the college campus in Oregon City, they received a warm welcome from Red Cross officials, who made sure they found a campsite and had access to bathrooms. Various citizens passing through the campus would regularly check on them, encouraging them and offering any assistance.
The Dows' two tortoises Fred and Wilma turned out to badly need a bath and some fresh lettuce, so a community gardener who rents a plot on the campus offered to help. They now have access to all the hoses and fresh produce they need, as long as they have to stay at CCC.
Clackamas County became Ground Zero for several dangerous fires, while smoke continues to turn the skies into grim shades of yellow and red. Hot and blustery winds have turned much of Northwest Oregon into a high-danger zone.
Gov. Kate Brown held a press conference at noon Wednesday, Sept. 9, and said she has invoked a law that, for the first time, enables the state fire marshal to mobilize firefighting efforts statewide, given widespread fires throughout Oregon.
The 1941 law, known as the Conflagration Act, generally has been invoked for specific areas.
"Within the last 24 hours, Oregon has experienced unprecedented fire, with significant damage and devastating consequences across the entire state," she said.
"I want to be up front and say we expect to see a great deal of loss in building structures and in human lives. This could be the greatest loss of human lives and property due to wildfire in our state's history."
Doug Grofe, fire protection chief for the Oregon Department of Forestry, said he expects weather conditions to change starting Thursday with relief from the easterly cold front that is pushing smoke from the Santiam Canyon fires into Salem.
There also are three fires merging into one in southern Clackamas County, he said.
Many Estacada community members have evacuated their homes as multiple fires burn in the area.
The Faraday, Dodge, Tumala Mountain and Three Linx areas, along with Barton and parts of Eagle Creek, were on level 3 evacuation as of 7 a.m. Wednesday, Sept. 9.
The city of Estacada and the Springwater, Tracy and George areas were moved level 3 evacuation as of about 1 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 9.
Phillip Choate was one of several people setting up trailers in the parking lot of Estacada First Baptist Church, early afternoon on Wednesday. He and his wife had evacuated their Viola home earlier that morning.
"We looked this morning and saw that (the fire) was a mile from our house," he said. "I hope it doesn't last too long. We didn't know what to expect, and we didn't want to take a chance."
Estacada resident Dan Fogel left his home near Hillockburn Road Tuesday afternoon. Officers from the Clackamas County Sheriff's Office told him he needed to evacuate in 15 minutes. "We grabbed important papers and clothes and went out the door," he said.
Fogel and his wife, Erin, spent the night in a hotel in Troutdale and then moved to Estacada High School Wednesday morning. "This is kind of our hub," Fogel said. "We could get the same phone calls at a hotel, but we feel more connected in Estacada."
Fogel noted that homes near his were burning. "It doesn't look good," he said, noting that he and his family had just built a new house on their property. "Hopefully the house is still standing."
Virginia McIntyre evacuated her home near Highway 211 Tuesday night and was at Estacada High School overnight. "It was pretty scary," she said. "We were trying to decide what to take. How do you decide what to take? I'm just hoping our house doesn't burn down."
She said she appreciated the food and coffee provided by Estacada School District staff. Fogel also appreciated the sense of community during this uncertain time. "All of our neighbors have lived up there for 20 years. We're connecting and sharing information. That's the only bright spot," he said.
Clackamas Fire said there were 15 fire-related incidents underway throughout the county as of Tuesday, Sept. 8, including the Dowty Road fire in Eagle Creek and the Riverside fire, which began in the Mt. Hood National Forest.
Both the Dowty Road and Riverside fires began early in the week. According to information from the Clackamas County Wildfire map, the Riverside fire began near Three Linx, has burned 10,000 acres and is 0% contained as of Sept. 8.
During a press conference on Tuesday night, Clackamas Fire Chief Fred Charlton said there had not been any injuries or fatalities from the fires, though multiple structures have been lost.
All of Clackamas County is on level one evacuation, which means residents should be ready for the possibility of leaving. On Tuesday, Sept. 8, Clackamas County Commissioners declared a state of emergency because of the wildfires.
While most of South Clackamas County is under evacuation orders due to wildfires, the rest of the county should be ready for potential evacuation.
One of the state's wildfire evacuation sites was at Clackamas Community College in Oregon City.
Brent Dow, his sons Kory and Jaydon, wife Shanna, two tortoises and two dogs and seven chickens gathered at the college. "I thought I would clear the fence line, and then I wondered if I had built a giant tinder pile in my backyard," Dow said. He said the postal carrier stopped by his house five minutes after notification of Level 3, asking if they wanted their mail.
There are four major wildfires burning in the county: Dowty (Eagle Creek), Riverside (southeast of Estacada and Colton), Unger (Colton) and Wilhoit (South Molalla), Clackamas Fire Chief Fred Charlton said during a press conference Tuesday night.
At an 11 a.m. Wednesday press conference, Clackamas County officials said the Spangler Road fire is under control along Highway 213.
An estimated 2,500 acres have burned so far, Oregon Department of Forestry dedicated 10 fire engines this morning. We ask that our communities care for one another, care for one another, said Fred Charlton, Clackamas Fire District No. 1 chief.
Saving lives is top priority, followed by structural protection to prevent more destruction of buildings, Charlton said. Officials are hoping for airplanes to help control fires from the air.
Charlton said he couldn't provide an estimate as to when, even under a best case scenario, people could return to their homes. He said he's worried about fires "flaring back up" as things heat up this afternoon and evening.
Canby Mayor Brian Hodson said earlier Wednesday, after speaking with Canby Fire Chief Jim Davis, that the Colton and Estacada fires could join up today in the Springdale area. This is being closely monitored and crews are fighting this as best they can, Hodson said.
Charlton said the focus right now is whether the four fires could merge and create and even more powerful conflagration. "We're certainly at their mercy and at the mercy of the weather," he said.
The causes of the fires remains to be determined. "We haven't entered the fire investigation stage, just fire suppression."
"Thank you to this whole community, because in order to get through this we have to pull together," said Nancy Bush, emergency management director for Clackamas County. "When you're traveling through the county you may come across roads that are closed. Also, please remember that we're still in a pandemic and the last thing we want is a spike in COVID cases because people are sheltering."
PPE and social distancing rules in effect in shelters, officials said.
According to Clackamas County, the Beachie Creek Fire, burning in Santiam Forest and west into the valley, is also affecting parts of Clackamas County.
Charlton reminded residents of the three evacuation levels:
• Level 1: Be ready for potential evacuation
• Level 2: Be set to evacuate
• Level 3: Go! Evacuate now!
By midafternoon Wednesday, Estacada and the areas of Springwater and George were at now Level 3 evacuation.
Presently, every home in Clackamas County south of Highway 211 between Estacada and Woodburn is at Level 3 evacuation.
The highway runs through the center of Molalla, splitting the town into Level 3 and Level 2. Those who live south of the highway should evacuate, while those north of it should be ready.
Visibility in Molalla is low, with red, smoky skies and ash falling. Air quality is low, and those who remain at home should stay inside.
Colton is at Level 3 and should be evacuated, where smoke fills the air and the Unger Road fire still burns.
As the sky darkens in shades of red and orange, the Clackamas County Event Center staff began doing what it could to help.
Several wildfires in the area forced many to evacuate horses, cattle and other livestock to avoid the flames. And many of them came to Canby.
Executive Director Laurie Bothwell said the fairgrounds opened up to horses and livestock Monday evening and the place is bulging with animals that had to be evacuated from the path of any number of wildfires burning to the east and south.
On Wednesday morning, Ryan Scholz, acting state veterinarian with the Oregon Department of Agriculture, joined Bothwell on a tour of the fairgrounds.
His task was to take a census of all the fairgrounds to see what they might need and if they had any available room. Polk County is full on horses, but has a little room, while Yamhill and Benton counties still have room. The Oregon State Fairgrounds has room, but with all of its staff furloughed, there is no one available to take calls.
Polk County is full for horses, but has a little room, while Yamhill and Benton counties still have room. The Oregon State Fairgrounds has room, but with all of its staff furloughed, there is no one available to take calls.
Midday Wednesday, word came that YMCA Camp Collins on the Sandy River began hosting refuge horses at its stables.
Meanwhile, the winds blew, the skies were orange and the fire danger was very real.
A Monday night wildfire on Macksburg Road near Highway 213 just outside Molalla would eventually jump the highway and make its presence felt in and around the RSG log yard. The blaze required a host of area residents to evacuate, including a horse boarding facility that had 22 horses that needed to be moved.
Fire crews from the area responded to the blaze that could be seen from miles away. By Tuesday morning, there were still some spot fires burning, but most of the area was simply charred.
Highway 213 was re-opened by Tuesday.
Crews from Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue contended with at least two in the West Linn area, Monday evening and Tuesday morning.
The largest of the West Linn fires started around 9:18 p.m. Monday from a downed power line on Petes Mountain Road. The two-alarm brush fire moved quickly and approached "very close" to several homes, according to Cassandra Ulven of TVF&R.
Residents in the area were asked to prepare to evacuate, though never actually ordered to do so, Ulven said.
Firefighters were able to protect the homes and quell the fire after three hours of intense fighting, a TVF&R press release stated. They likely will remain on scene through Tuesday afternoon dealing with hot spots.
A downed power line caused another smaller fire in the 2000 block of Southwest Childs Road in the Stafford area between West Linn and Lake Oswego. The one-alarm brush fire spread to a wood pile and adjacent barn, according to the press release.
John Baker, Holly Bartholomew, Max Egener, Dana Haynes, Emily Lindstrand, Mark Miller, Ray Pitz, Courtney Vaughn, Kristen Wohlers and Peter Wong have contributed to this story.
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