'I've never been so afraid': Oregon fire evacuees face unrecognizable landscape

Clackamas county residents gathered in cars and tents describe destruction but also moments of kindness

At the grassy creekside park to the rear of the Elk’s Lodge in Milwaukie, Oregon, about 100 evacuees were quartered in an assortment of RVs, cars, and tents.

Some, like Eric Sam, a lumber mill worker, had evacuated twice in recent days.

“First we were in Oregon City, then they moved us here.”

Sam said he, his wife and their three teenage children had first fled Molalla for the grounds of Clackamas Community College on Tuesday. Then, late on Thursday, the college, along with most of Oregon City, was elevated to a level two fire danger warning.

Sam’s employer, also located near Molalla, had shut its doors in the face of conditions one could only describe as movie-like. A picture on his phone showed the family’s house a few days back, bathed in blood red light refracted through thick smoke.

Now, the family split up to sleep, some in their single tent, some in their car.

“It’s hard to buy a tent because everybody wants one,” Sam said.

At least half a million people in Oregon, a tenth of the state’s population, were under some type of evacuation orders by Thursday evening, with fires forcing the evacuation of large parts of Clackamas county, the Portland metropolitan area’s south-easternmost segment.

Oregon governor Kate Brown on Friday corrected a statement by the state Office of Emergency Management that said half a million people had been ordered to flee, and said more than 40,000 had been evacuated and about 500,000 had either been told to leave their homes or to prepare to do so.

Some parts of Oregon have probably not seen such intense blazes in 300 to 400 years, Meg Krawchuk, a pyrogeographer at Oregon State University, told the Guardian.

Shyanne Summers, of Dickie Prairie, a hamlet south-east of Molalla, had also been evacuated twice as the area of fire danger expanded on Thursday.

Summers and her boyfriend, David Pla, were camped out across a complex of three tents with Kristopher Smith and Sidney Vandenbroeder, another young couple who had fled the area around Molalla.

Also sharing the accommodations were four cats, including a playful ginger kitten, and two small dogs. (Pla, who lives in Madras but drove over Mt Hood to help Summers evacuate, remarked that she had brought “all of the animals except the horse”, which remained in Dickey Prairie.)

Summers was living in the same house as her grandmother and great-grandmother, who were now staying with other relatives in Milwaukie.

When they evacuated on Wednesday the smoke was so thick that “you could hardly see from me to you”, she said, indicating visibility of around 6ft.

Summers said she had almost fainted as she was packing her things to leave. “I’ve never been so afraid,” she said.

A burned railcar sits abandoned in a lumber yard on Thursday in Sandy, Oregon.
A burned railcar sits abandoned in a lumber yard on Thursday in Sandy, Clackamas county, Oregon. Photograph: Nathan Howard/Getty Images

“Now we don’t know if we have a house to go back to,” she added.

The fires made a familiar environment unrecognizable. “You could see the orange glow on the horizon,” Summers said, and the ground was littered with “coin-sized pieces of ash”.

Asked if her grandmother or great-grandmother could recall conditions like those they recently faced, Summers said “their only reference for this kind of ash fall is Mt St Helens”, referring to the volcanic eruption of a mountain in southern Washington in 1980, which deposited thick ash in the streets of Portland and other parts of north-west Oregon.

Kristopher Smith, her friend, said that like then, in Molalla in recent days, there had been “piles of ash in the streets”.

Smith said at least 50 people had remained in Molalla and had “really stepped up”. They were now checking on neighbors and “patrolling” the streets.

He said he had read on a Facebook page associated with the community that “they found a couple of people who were trying to set fires and chased them off”, but he conceded that the group was not the most reliable source of information.

“There’s a lot on there. You never know what’s true and what’s not.”

On Thursday in Molalla, three journalists were confronted by three civilians armed with assault rifles and ordered to leave town.

Christina Kerovecz of Oregon City, meanwhile, was sitting at a picnic table with her golden retriever, Emma, with whom she was sharing a small tent.

She had never experienced anything like the fires, or the weather conditions leading up to them, she said. She had lived in Oregon City all her life, she added, but the dry winds that blew through the area before the fires were a phenomenon that “has never happened as long as I have been cognizant”.

Melted metal on the ground at a burned-out lumber yard on Thursday in Molalla.
Melted metal on the ground at a burned-out lumber yard on Thursday in Molalla. Photograph: Nathan Howard/Getty Images

She said a healthy wisteria vine on her chicken run “was completely dried out” by the wind. “It had sucked the moisture out of it”.

Kerovecz put the blame for the events mostly on one factor: “If we didn’t have global warming, none of this would be as severe”.

In the grand, mid-century Elks hall, Sue Mitchell happily showed the piles of canned food, toilet paper, bottled water and other goods that were the fruits of an “overwhelming community response”, but added that they were still short of tents and bedding for many who were arriving “with nothing” after fleeing their homes.

As she described the fraternal order’s charitable efforts, more local residents arrived with additional donations, and she said that local businesses and restaurants had pitched in with catering and supplies.

Evacuees were unanimous on the generosity of the community response that the Elks were coordinating.

“It’s all very stressful,” Kerovecz remarked, “but people have been so kind”.

Maanvi Singh contributed to this report


Jason Wilson in Milwaukie, Oregon

The GuardianTramp

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