Flames, Refugees and COVID-19 - The Oregon State Fairgrounds

Updated: Feb 12

Chris Cearnal tells the story of the Oregon State Fairgrounds, one of the many sites being used to house evacuees from Oregon's wildfires.


A woman with a loose bun and a neon green fanny pack bends down over her curious Yorkie pup, his leash looped around her waist. His little eyes follow her hands as she teeters, hoists and balances a heavy dusty suitcase between the handles of her walker. He skitters along behind her as she wedges the door open with her foot and pushes through into the yawning fluorescent hall. Name? A serious browed woman in a perky ponytail and stiff duckbill shaped mask asks from behind a folding table. The woman and her dog are looking for help in the yawning hanger of the Oregon State Fairgrounds one of the sites taking in some of the over 40,000 refugees from Oregon’s unprecedented fire season. Fever? Ponytail rises, brushing pamphlets with her t-shirt as she leans and bends to press a thermometer between the blinking woman’s eyes. Sign here. 


The goal is to get people into what the county press officer in low heels and pressed trousers calls “ non-congregate” shelter as soon as possible. COVID-19 makes the traditional “cots in a big room” model risky, instead the county officials are working hard to find hotels and motels for the more than 1,000 people who have come through their doors this week.


In early August a fire started deep in the impossibly green, old growth forest of Opal Creek Wilderness, a twisting road, a four mile walking trail and an hour and a half drive from Portland Oregon. It smoldered quietly for weeks as the birds went about their business, the salamanders swam and deer grazed on ever dryer leaves. On the seventh of September, following months of rainless days, rare east winds began to gust and then blow steady as a steam engine across the state. A local television station warned of a “Historic wind event” Winds like toddlers pick up what they pass and this storm raked across the dry desert bringing no mist, no water, only armloads of prickling heat and bellows of desiccating air. The storm pushed fire into sleeping towns, up canyon walls and from tree to tree through forests late into the night. 


Winds gusted in some places up to 50 miles an hour knocking down sparking power lines and igniting more fires along the way. Although some rural counties in Oregon announced evacuations, the high wind velocity caused fires to move at the speed of a fast car, outpacing evacuation warnings and surprising neighborhoods that had weathered countless fire seasons in years past. Many people were startled awake by a neighbor at the door or a friend on the phone, gathered what they could and took off, some hopscotching from one friends house to another as the fire spread. The hardest hit communities report no official warnings at all. Several Oregon mountain towns including Talent and Phoenix burned nearly to the ground.


Beyond the registration table the fairground hall is ringed with long tables decorated with carefully stacked necessities for anyone who has fled in a hurry. Bean tin towers arranged by label, shield stalwart volunteers in reflective vests. People move slowly through the rows of baby supplies and quick meals and tentatively slip a few things into a bag or a cardboard box, wary of taking more than their family needs.


A table of spidery legged telephone chargers invites the drained to sit. For the number of people murmuring in their masks the building is quiet, hollow sounding. This is a county fairgrounds, accustomed to squealing children gleefully dragging their parents from one giant tractor to another. The floors miss the slick of melted popsicles and dropped caramel apples, the walls are built to echo children’s names belted out by grandparents as they struggle to keep them in view. Through the double doors the smoke-filled air registers in the hazardous range on the Environmental Protection Agency’s air quality scale and the yellow haze stuffs your nose like singed cotton. Several teenage girls in colorful masks brush and wash their horses under a row of brightly painted plaster rooster heads. Alongside a dusty alley, the stables’ red brick arches soar.


Many families in these rural communities evacuated with their livestock and inside in the dim twinkling light the barns whisper with activity. The snuggling and nuzzling of uprooted pigs and goats is interrupted by an intermittent thwump of manure peppering the metal bucket of a wheelbarrow. Wendy and Raven are hard at work shoveling livestock pens for evacuated families like the midnight cobblers of the Grimm tale, making short work of a nasty chore. “She has always loved animals” Wendy tells me, planting her shovel and fixing her mask. Raven scoops a heap of the shifting pile, as it steams in the early evening air and tips it confidently into the barrow. “I’ve been in a lot of serious situations and I’ve not had a lot of help.” She confides and continues to shovel. Raven, 16, heard about the fires tearing through the fields and hillsides of the towns around her and decided that she would be that person, the one that steps in and makes things better in the background. “Even if I never meet the people whose animals these are I feel good.” Volunteers like Raven and Wendy sign up for shifts to help families with their evacuated livestock so they can concentrate on finding a place to stay and sorting through what to do next.


Raven doesn’t need to be thanked Wendy tells me. She is happy to help. She beams through her mask at the young woman matter of factly cleaning a stranger’s pig pen. “I’m coming here and making them feel better and that makes me feel good.” A pig with the dark whiskers looks up at her from his pile of straw. Wendy, 41, has been Raven’s mentor for over 8 years. She’s wearing rain boots in this barn as fires burn in the distant hills because it is what Raven wanted to do. She shrugs and nods towards the snuffling pigs on the other side of the green metal fence. “I let Raven take the lead. She always does”.


Two puppies tumble over one another in a small wire pen in the parking lot outside the fairgrounds as a lazy long faced dog looks on. Bob, in his fifties is tall and striking with hazel eyes and Harry Dean Stanton’s gaze. He leans on his truck filled to the windows with boxes and papers. A camouflage cap sits on the dashboard. Bob’s escape is a familiar story around the fairgrounds. He sits down and tells me, patting the puppies as he talks. “I throw the dogs in. I had quite a bit of my camping gear in the truck. I seen on the opposite side of the canyon that fire roar up the ridge. The wind was blowing so hard you had to brace yourself. When them flames were racing up that ridge it was a tornado of fire at a 45 or 50 degree angle. I watched it and I said, time to leave.” Bob ferried a friend to safety before coming to the fairgrounds. On their way out of the fire they passed a caravan of cars with a snowplow at the front clearing fallen trees and debris out of the road. He shakes his head as he tells me about it. “Whole lotta love goin’ around and strong people. I know people who lost everything up there.”


The fires that spread over Labor Day weekend contributed to a loss of more than double the average acres burned in a year in Oregon. Nine people were killed and more than 3,100 homes burned.


Chris Cearnal

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