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Small Town Bands Together to Care for Evacuees of Oregon’s Bootleg Fire

July 15, 2021 by Brock Blasdell
Firefighters stand against a backdrop of the Bootleg Fire. Photo by Marty Dillavou

Oregon is currently at the heart of one of the most expensive and destructive wildfire seasons of the past decade. According to data from the National Interagency Fire Center, six wildfires across the state are currently burning over 280 thousand acres of land in a devastating act of natural destruction.

The worst fire within the state, by far, is the Bootleg Fire, which spans over 200,000 acres, and to this day, remains largely uncontained. As state and national fire services work tirelessly to control the blaze, community members within the small surrounding towns are banding together to withstand the incredible loss.

“This is a really tough fire. It’s spreading real quick, and it’s covering a lot of territory. We are losing peoples’ homes, and we are losing peoples’ livestock,” Cynthia Pettit-Bowles, the pastor of Beatty Valley Gospel Mission, a gospel church located just miles away from the fire, said. “But everyone is pulling together. And praise god, this will all work out for the best for everybody.”

Some community members have begun mobilizing in conjunction with aid services like the Red Cross and Relief Angels to support those in the nearby evacuation zones – many of whom now find themselves sleeping on the street.

(left) Katie Fangrow (middle) Jessica Starshine McCallum (right) Ruth Marburger pose amid food packing at the Sprague Community Center. Photo provided by Katie Fangrow.

Katie Fangrow, Ruth Marburger and Jessica Starshine McCallum are all residents of Klamath Forest Estates, a neighborhood near Beatty that currently sits at a level two fire warning. The three banded together to open the Sprague Community Center to find and support evacuees after heavy smoke in their area became concerning.

“We came down early just wanting to open this place up to be available for people who have lost everything, or are tired of being in the smoke, or are nervous about the fires,” Fangrow said. “And it kind of blew up, and got way bigger than we thought it would.”

After opening up the community center, the three began mobilizing to provide supplies and transport to the many evacuees of the neighboring level three evacuation areas. Every person they helped became a connection to another potentially needful individual, and all along the way they have met others seeking to help.

“Part of what we were doing is trying to find those people. For instance, the first day we opened this place up, we had a family sleeping down by the river, here in Spring River, who had lost everything down by the fire. We had another guy who came down the next day. He came up from the next town, and he had lost everything,” Fangrow said. “But then we were trying to find people… and we found out that there were people staying out by the Palomino store in Beatty, so we started going out there.”

Sara Palomino, owner of the Palomino Market, the only store in Beatty, Oregon, is herself a victim of the ongoing fire.

“I am the only business in town,” Palomino said. “I am worried… My three-story cabin burned down, and then it started going down to Sycan and I was worried about my business. I’m stressed. I got sick last night, and I think it’s because I’m stressed out.”

Palomino Market has become a hub for evacuees, with many staying out front of the shop on the road. Palomino stated many of those injured from the fire had already been transported to larger nearby towns, and that the displaced people living out front had been kept relatively safe through community relief efforts.

Community members load and unload supplies at the Sprague Community Center. Photo provided by Katie Fangrow

A feat, she said, that was only possible through the work of people like Fangrow, Marburger and McCallum.

“They’re so good. I mean, they’ve been feeding us, bringing us toilet paper, water, everything. They are the ones that need the credit,” Palomino said.

For now, the small teams of community members centered around the Bootleg Fire are beginning to spread. They are looking for more people to help, and have continued to expand aid operations far beyond what they originally thought possible.

“We’ve made a connection in Bly which is one town east of Beatty, and we’re taking food out there,” Fangrow said when asked what her next step was. “We’ve got a guy with a restaurant out there who is going to open it up and take evacuees out on his back lot … So, we are taking supplies out to him today and working out how to feed those people.”

Fangrow says once they arrive at the Antler Grill, the aforementioned restaurant, their first goal is to better identify exactly how many people need help. After that, it’s a matter of making more road trips to reach more people.

The efforts of the three wouldn’t have been possible without the resources and support of the crisis aid organization Relief Angels. In particular, of a woman named Valerie O’Dai, who is both the executive director of Relief Angels, and the coordinator behind much of the relief efforts happening in Oregon.

Locals stop to help re-pack a food delivery truck which had a malfunction that spilled supplies across the road. Photo by Valerie O’Dai

“I was informed that she [Fangrow]… had decided to open up the community center, and create a respite space for all of the volunteers as well as all of the evacuees,” O’Dai said. “When I saw that I said, you know what, I can help her, and I can make her more efficient, and so I reached out. Since then, we have a very good network rolling with everybody involved.”

O’Dai and the Relief Angels have been pivotal in organizing the relief efforts amid the evolving Bootleg Fire. According to her, relief efforts are being bogged down by several factors, the primary and most important, being distance. Some of these evacuees are located one or two hours from the nearest town. Some of them are on dirt roads. And when the evacuation orders came in, some fled East without knowing that most of the relief effort was centered West.

“They went the opposite direction. They went East. And the resource centers are all already 45 minutes west of the fire to begin with. So, when they’re evacuating on the east side going even further east, they are just too far away. They just cannot facilitate getting over here.”

Fuel shortages in the area mean travel distance becomes less of a nuisance and more of an insurmountable obstacle, as people look for food and shelter after losing their homes.

Among these small communities are stories of tragedy. O’Dai has been witness to much of it. In particular, she told the story of a family who had lost everything, and of what a young child answered when asked if she needed anything.

“While we were asking this family what they needed, they were throwing out needs like toilet paper, paper towels, sleeping bags… And this little girl says, ‘When I woke up this morning, I was really scared because everybody was out and about and I didn’t know where they were. Can you find me a teddy bear because I left my teddy bear back home?’,” O’Dai said. “She straight up broke my heart.”

Relief Angels volunteers help load donations into a truck heading out to campers two hours away from nearest relief station. Photo by Valerie O’Dai

Fortunately, however, these moments of crisis have also bred moments of heroism and camaraderie, and within minutes of relaying this story of the little girl, O’Dai gave her phone to gentlemen operating an impromptu aid station outside of his restaurant. He was the owner of the Antler Grill, and his name was Robert Berman.

“We were going to make this a central camp spot for evacuees who can come and actually put their property that they have left into a central location where they can be fed and use the restrooms. The majority of these people have been sleeping on the side of the road, in trees, etc., and so we thought we would step up and help our community. To just put it all in one location. Everything is really scattered right now.”

Last night, there were approximately 15 families staying at the Antler Grill. Today, amid certain sectors being re-opened by state fire services, that number has dwindled. However, Berman says he doesn’t believe that will last long.

“There’s gonna be folks that go up and realize that their property is gone, and so they are going to come back down looking for resources. We don’t know the number yet. It could start again tonight, or tomorrow.” Berman said

Berman, a survivor of two heart attacks and a stroke, says the only thing he has personally lost is sleep due to the air pollution from the smoke. Yet not even health matters when a community like this is in crisis.

“Now that we’ve stepped up, others are stepping up,” Berman said. “I just want to say my heart goes out to people losing their property. To people in positions of uncertainty. And absolutely very important is all the wildlife and domestic animals out there. I mean this thing is sweeping through here like a freight train, and it’s something that we all fear.”

Berman, who lives next to the forestry service and stays as up-to-date as he can, predicts this will be a wildfire impacting more than one million acres of land.

“This isn’t the only fire plaguing Oregon, this isn’t even the only fire with evacuations,” O’Dai said. “We have fires plaguing the entire western coast. We deal with this every year, but recently it’s been getting worse and worse. I did more work last year alone than I did in the first five years of this job combined.”

“If you can just ask your readers, if they pray, to please pray for us,” she continued.

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