Fire evacuees play waiting game in Wilsonville
While Wilsonville was covered in a dreary fog of toxic air this week, it didn't seem so bad in comparison to the places evacuees fled — where hot ash and heavy smoke made breathing a painful chore and fires threatened to incinerate homes.
As multiple regional wildfires engulfed communities and hundreds of thousands of acres, many evacuees flocked to Wilsonville. Most stayed in hotels or at a friend or family member's house, but some camped in local parking lots like the one at Fry's Electronics.
"The first day we got everything here, it was the best night of sleep I've ever had because I was so exhausted from not only grabbing everything and preparing to leave but the mental toll it took on me too," said Cory Foster, who evacuated from Molalla and was staying in the Fry's parking lot.
A good time to have an RV
While Foster attended the College of the Siskiyous in Weed, California in 2014, he had to evacuate as the Boles Fire spread wildly. This year, not only did he have to flee his current home but he also learned that the apartment complex he occupied while living in Talent when he attended Southern Oregon University had burned to the ground this week.
"Up here it's the same story," he said. "It's been a rough week for a lot of people."
Foster stayed with five others including his 2-year-old daughter in an RV Friday. He and his family left their home when Molalla was in Level 2 evacuation status, but then returned to grab a few things. They were especially thankful to snag a large stash of photographs on the way out.
Foster said they were planning an RV trip to go deer hunting in eastern Oregon in a few weeks. But they found a more vital use for the vehicle.
"We don't get a whole bunch of use out of it, but the fact we were able to use it now in a time like this, it seems like the perfect time to have it," Foster said.
Though more spacious than a car, the family navigated tight living quarters and Foster was even happy to spend some time outside despite the unhealthy air. For his daughter's sake and their own sanity, they cracked jokes and kept the mood light.
"She helps a lot with keeping everything lighthearted and we have to for her. If everyone is down and depressed she's going to see that too," Foster said.
Andrew and Mike Wiegele, Foster's neighbors at Fry's, were both feeling optimistic that their home in Molalla hadn't burned down, even though it's located on the edge of the fire map Andrew was examining. Mike was especially upbeat, saying he was thinking all he would have to do was wipe away ash from the sidewalk with his leaf blower.
"I've been holding out 100 (percent certainty) the whole time. I'm trying not to be negative. It's (his home) gonna be there when I get back," Mike said.
They ended up in Wilsonville simply because that's where the air was safer and they heard that the Fry's parking lot was usually vacant for the most part. And Mike was thankful for the fact that McDonald's or other fast food places were just a short walk away.
Both Foster and the Wiegeles said they hadn't heard anything from Fry's employees, and Mike even bought materials at the store to fix a cord to his vehicle rig that one of his dogs chewed. The Wiegeles also estimated that they had met a couple dozen families living at Fry's in the last couple days.
With so much uncertainty about how the fires will progress, neither group had a plan beyond the next few days.
"We're hopeful by Monday or Tuesday we'll have some better news especially with some rain coming in," Foster said.
Hotels suddenly packed
While the Fry's parking lot was still mostly vacant Friday, local hotels were packed to the brim.
Beth Price, the director of sales at Holiday Inn in Wilsonville, said phones started ringing off the hook Tuesday and hadn't let up since.
The Holiday Inn team has even been forced to turn off the reservation system periodically due to the call loads.
"The second we open a room it gets booked up," Price said.
On a brighter note, Price said individuals call constantly asking if they can cover room charges for evacuees.
"Every other phone call is someone wanting to cover someone else's room," Price said.
Price also said they're allowing some evacuees who don't have a reservation to temporarily stay in their parking lot. She also referred evacuees who can't get reservations to places further away from I-5 because those hotels are generally less full.
The hotel is also hosting part of an assisted living facility in Stayton and some firefighters who need a place to stay.
Things were pretty similar at Motel 6 in Wilsonville. Assistant Manager Janna Wells said people had flocked from Stayton, Canby and Molalla and that the hotel was totally booked. However, they hadn't had to turn many people away yet, she said.
"Everybody is pretty much paying day-by-day (in terms of their hotel stay) because they just don't know," Wells said of evacuees.
Yvonne, who was staying at Best Western in Wilsonville and declined to provide her last name, said she and her brother had nowhere to go when they evacuated Mulino but felt fortunate that the hotel had a couple rooms vacant when they called in the wee hours of the morning.
They said the fires "were all around them" before they evacuated "just in time."
"The neighbor came over and he said 'you've got to get out here. You're gonna be boxed in,'" she said.
They're staying for five days and Yvonne wasn't sure what they would do next or whether her home was ashen or upright.
This situation at local hotels is a far cry from just weeks ago, when Motel 6 was at 50% capacity, according to Wells. Hotels like the Holiday Inn and Motel 6 had struggled mightily because many people have avoided traveling due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The newfound business was a glimmer of good news amid a bleak landscape.
"It (the pandemic) had a very huge economic toll on the hotel as well as our staff," Price said. "We're happy to help (fire victims) in any way. We understand to some extent how stressful it can be to people so we just want to do what we can."
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