April 18, 2024

In memory of each person who succumbed to excessive heat during the summer of 2021, Multnomah County, the City of Gresham and Friends of Trees planted 72 trees in an area notorious for its lacking tree canopy and urban heat islands, honoring their memory while providing much-needed shade in years to come.

It’s been nearly three years since Multnomah County experienced the record-shattering Heat Dome in June 2021. By the end of the blistering summer, 72 people died of heat. The majority of deaths — 69 — occurred during the June heat-dome event when temperatures reached an unprecedented 116 degrees Fahrenheit. 

On a windy-but-sunny morning in mid-March 2024 volunteers and event organizers gathered at Nadaka Nature Park to plant trees in the surrounding neighborhood in honor of those who lost their lives to the extraordinary heat of 2021. Attendees of particular note were the family and friends of four of the victims who were claimed by the heat.

Chair Vega Pederson presented certificates to the family members acknowledging the tree being planted in remembrance of their loved one

In addition to trees being planted along neighborhood streets, a symbolic tree was planted in Nadaka Nature Park in a spot identified by Friends of Trees volunteers. Gathered around a planting hole, family members took turns placing small paper hearts around the roots of the memorial tree before covering them in dirt. 

Among the more than 100 people in attendance was Chair Jessica Vega Pederson, County Commissioner Lori Stegmann and City of Gresham Councilor Eddy Morales. The tree planting event was coordinated between the Multnomah County Office of Sustainability, Friends of Trees, and the City of Gresham, and focused on East Multnomah County, where neighborhoods have been identified as heat islands that experience above-average summer temperatures. 

It was between Friday, June 25, through Monday, June 28, 2021 when the National Weather Service issued an excessive heat warning for the Portland metro region and temperatures reached 95, 108, 112, and 116 degrees respectively. Mid-August brought about another bout of high temperatures; the Portland Airport recorded confirmed temperatures of 102 and 103 degrees on Aug. 12 and 13, respectively. These record-breaking temperatures had never been felt by many in the area, who were unprepared for the extended period and health effects.

“It was an unprecedented heat wave that our community had never experienced before and it was driven by climate change,” said John Wasiutynski, director of the Office of Sustainability. “We’re here today to look forward and to think about how our community can be more prepared and ready for the future.”

The vast majority of people who died that summer were older, or lived alone. Most had no air conditioning or did not turn it on. 

Chair Vega Pederson, a resident of East Portland, said the tree planting event was a chance to think about how to do things differently in light of ongoing climate change that will continue to affect the community. 

“Today is an act of hope,” she said. “Putting down the seeds and the roots for the future and the future we want to create. These 72 trees are going to be a part of us, a part of our community, and a part of our lives for years to come. They’re going to canopy us, shade us, enrich our soil, and brighten our skies. They will cool us down when the summer is hot and they will help us save future lives that might otherwise be taken from us in similar events.” 

Family members and friends of those who died took part in the ceremony

The eastern part of Multnomah County has the fewest number of trees. Chair Vega Pederson said over the past five years the County has worked to plant over 500 trees in the community and will continue to plant more. 

After reading the poem Instructions on Not Giving Up by Poet Laureate of the United States Ada Limón, Chair Vega Pederson closed her remarks by recognizing the attending families of heat victims Mary Olsen, Jerome Ollison, Penny Clark, William Dilks and Thomas Dunne. 

She presented each family with a certificate that acknowledged the tree being planted in memory of their family member. “This gesture, which will boost stability in our community in years to come, honors the memory of those we have lost and builds a better community for future generations,” read the certificate. 

Chair Vega Pederson gave remarks at Nadaka Nature Park

Commissioner Stegmann, who represents East County as the District 4 commissioner, told those gathered, “It is our hope that today’s memorial planting provides some small amount of healing to all of you who have lost loved ones.”

She added that planting trees not only provides natural beauty for our environment, but also cools the streets and shades homes and parks. Trees are also important to our physical and mental health, she said, pointing out that studies have found trees and landscaping help reduce violence, enable people to heal faster with fewer complications, and increase concentration by reducing mental fatigue. “We plant these trees for our children, our grandchildren and future generations.”

She added that trees break up heat islands, helping cool down the county by as much as 10 degrees, and provide cleaner air. Communities with low incomes are disproportionately exposed to heat islands and also lack air conditioning in their homes.

Stegmann shared that as part of the federal Inflation Reduction Act, Friends of Trees was awarded a $12 million Urban and Community Forestry Grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which will allow them to plant 1,000 more trees over the next few years in East County. 

Commissioner Stegmann joined Friends of Trees and City of Gresham on March 16

Families expressed their appreciation to the County, the City of Gresham and Friends of Trees, and said the tree gave them a place they could revisit to remember their loved one. 

“Out of tragedy comes something so positive,” said Laura Dunne, sister of Thomas Dunne.

Gresham councilor shares heat impacts on his family

Councilor Morales has also been working with Friends of Trees since 2018 to expand the tree canopy in Gresham. 

“We’re trying to do our best to mitigate the impact of climate change,” said Morales, who is working to adopt the very first Climate Impact Action Plan to address the challenges of keeping areas cooler and preparing for more extreme conditions. 

Climate change holds another level of meaning for Morales, who Morales shared with the families that his mother had returned to Mexico, where her mother resided as she was passing away. His mother was banned from entering the U.S. for 10 years regardless of her green card status, she lived in Tijuana, a border city.

“If you’ve ever been to Tijuana, you realize that the air quality is horrible and there are no trees, so it’s very hot and it also gets very cold,” he said.

His mother was asthmatic, and Morales explained that all of these conditions triggered an asthmatic response that eventually took his mother’s life, just three months short of her 10-year ban. 

“Everyone should deserve to live in a place with clean air, clean water, and protection from these harsh climate environments,” he said. 

Nonprofit Friends of Trees plays key role in addressing climate change

Friends of Trees headed the recruitment of the nearly 100 volunteers who participated in the planting of the 72 trees. 

“When we were founded in 1989, I don’t think our founder and our initial volunteers were imagining putting on events for an extreme heat event such as the 2021 Heat Dome,” said Yashar Vasef, the organization’s executive director. Now, 35 years after the group’s inception, “We have extreme heat events that threaten the lives and resilience of our community members and neighbors.”

Vasef said planting the trees is climate action and prevents the worst outcomes of extreme heat events.