For Cheryl Ray of Oregon City, the fires burning in Clackamas County are a stark reminder of her past. A Texas native, she had already lost everything twice due to Hurricanes in Galveston and Houston.
She moved to Oregon eight years ago for its environment. She has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and asthma, and she felt fresh air from Oregon’s forests would be better for her lungs. She didn’t expect disaster to strike a third time.
When Clackamas County leaders issued a Level Two — Get Set — evacuation, she wasted no time packing her bags and leaving. She doesn’t have a car, but she was fortunate to evacuate with her neighbors. They left at 2 p.m. and traveled north in bumper-to-bumper traffic. It took them five hours to travel the 15 miles to Portland.
Ray found out about the shelter at the Oregon Convention Center while scouring social media for safe places to stay with her two dogs. Multnomah County had partnered with the American Red Cross to open the congregate space after expanding fire danger and evacuations forced neighboring Clackamas County to relocate its shelters.
“I brought my dogs, a bag, and a bag for them. That’s all. Hopefully the fire passes me up,” she said. “I’ve been through a lot. Material things can be replaced. The most important thing was to get the dogs and everyone safe.”
Ray is one of 40,000 Oregonians forced to evacuate during the most destructive wildfires in the state’s history. So far, the wildfires have burned almost 1 million acres across the state. According to Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, 500,000 residents now live in an evacuation zone.
When the wildfires caused Clackamas County to issue a Level 2 - Get Set - evacuation for Oregon City, Canby and Sandy, the Multnomah County emergency management team got to work finding and opening shelter space for residents escaping the fire and heavy smoke.
With wildfire smoke settling over the Portland metro area, Multnomah County reached a “hazardous” level on the air quality index this week. When the pollution in major cities was ranked, Portland had the most dangerous air in the world due to wildfire smoke.
“What’s going on in Oregon is something we’ve never seen,” said Chris Voss, director of Emergency Management. “I think it’s a necessity for us as public servants to be there for our neighbors and the jurisdictions around the state that are not in a position to provide that level of service.”
On Thursday morning as the fires spread, Multnomah County received word that the Clackamas shelter for people who’d been evacuated would need to be relocated. The County had already opened a physical distancing shelter at the Oregon Convention Center due to COVID-19, as well as an emergency shelter for people trying to escape the unhealthy air. County staff connected with the American Red Cross and were able to open the shelter to the public by 2 p.m.
Anyone who needs any type of assistance is welcome at the shelter, no questions asked. Trained Red Cross volunteers are ready to welcome anyone who checks in. Breakfast, lunch and dinner are provided. Cots are available, along with blankets and showers. The shelter is also welcoming pets.
Adding to the challenge of opening a shelter, officials must also contend with COVID-19 pandemic. Each person entering the shelter attests to their health and has their temperature taken. Masks are required at all times, cots are spaced to maintain physical distancing, meals are individually wrapped and administrators are working with public health experts to create a safe environment.
According to Chad Carter, a spokesman with the American Red Cross, the organization has been preparing for this scenario since March. He says visitors to the shelter can trust health and safety is a top priority.
“If you think about evacuating your home at any moment, that’s difficult,” Carter said. “During a pandemic, that just adds a whole different layer to it. We want people to know that there is a safe, healthy place to go, and that people don’t need to make a decision between evacuating their homes and COVID-19.”
As individuals, couples and families checked in to the shelter Friday morning, each one had a different story to tell about how the fires had devastated them. Robert and Stephan Mitchell -- two brothers living outside of Estacada -- came to the shelter to find food for other displaced families staying in a nearby motel.
When the brothers saw smoke barreling over their forest property earlier this week, their first reaction was to leave immediately. When they left home, their area was under a Level One evacuation. Now, it’s Level Three and they don’t know if they’ll have a home to return to.
“It’s devastating. It breaks your heart. I’ve never seen anything like this,” Stephan said. “That’s our home, and it’s probably not going to be there anymore.”
Raquel Gonzales-Oliver, a 15-year-old from Oregon City, says her family got a Level Two alert. They decided to evacuate because the smell of smoke was overpowering in their house.
She packed some extra clothes and shoes and they evacuated — first to Hillsboro — then to Portland. As a teenager living through the pandemic, school closures and now the wildfires, she says she still hasn’t made sense of everything that’s happened to this year.
While she waits out the fire in safety, she says she’ll play with her dogs and her cat she was able to bring into the shelter to help keep her mind off things. And she’ll hold out hope that she’ll have a home to return to. “It’s very chaotic and confusing,” she said. “I’m hoping I’ll understand it some day. My mom and my family are giving me hope.”
Jennifer Masotja, Emergency Manager for the Department of County Human Services, said the County and the Red Cross are working hard to make sure everyone at the shelter is as comfortable as possible. And behavioral health specialists are on hand to help console and support people who are struggling to cope.
“I want everyone to know that we will be here until we’re not needed anymore,” Masotja said. “If you are impacted by this fire in any way, shape or form, you are welcome to come. We want to support you.”
The Oregon Convention Center is open 24 hours a day. Enter on the west side of the building on First Ave. near the loading dock. Anyone is welcome after a temperature check and sign in.