With each month of 2020 we saw new challenges surface in our communities. The month of September was no exception, as the wildfires in the Oregon grew larger and the destruction spread. Many watched as tens of thousands in our community evacuated their homes in search of safety. Among these were the residents at Whispering Pines Senior Village in Estacada.
On Tuesday September 8th, the VOA Oregon Team, Avery and Cameron, put into motion a plan for evacuation of all 62 residents. Cameron, with the assistance of some resident volunteers, began going door to door to tell residents to get their go bags ready and be on alert to evacuate. Residents who were able to, evacuated with family. Thanks to a partnership with the Estacada School District, the other residents would have a ride out of town by bus. Arrangements were made to move out Wednesday morning if the line for evacuation moved closer.
On Wednesday, came news of the entire city of Estacada moving into a Level 3 evacuation. With the bus arriving, Cameron, and Lindsey from our facilities team, ran through the building with a blow horn to let everyone know it was time to go. Most of the remaining residents needed assistance exiting the building. “Had Lindsey not been there, I don’t know what I would have done,” Cameron said of her evacuation teammate.
By the time the residents made it to the evacuation site at Clackamas Community College (CCC), the entire city of Estacada was at a Level 3 evacuation. The residents settled into their space at CCC to stay the night. All were watching over each other making sure they felt safe and had what they needed. “The care and compassion that the residents have for each other makes me know I am in the right place,” said Cameron.
Cameron also stayed the night at CCC, but outside in her truck with 2 dogs and 3 cats who were not allowed inside the college.
As Thursday morning came, CCC was entering into the evacuation zone as well, which meant that everyone there would need to move again. The new location was the Oregon Convention Center. Instead of moving there with the other evacuees, residents were able to go to the VOA Oregon Adult Day Center, Lambert House. This brought in additional help from other teams at VOA Oregon as they prepared the location for what could be a long stay.
Thankfully, because of COVID-19, Lambert House was not being used daily. This allowed for the residents have a place to stay until evacuation was lifted. Lambert House is equipped with amenities that would make the residents feel more at home: showers, five bathrooms, a laundry facility, and Catering for a Cause providing three meals a day.
Elizabeth, the VOA Oregon Children, Family, and Seniors Division Director, reached out to her community to help provide cots and bedding for the residents as well as hygiene kits. Alison, Lisa, and Julie from our Adult Day Centers were all there to help set up and make the residents feel welcome. “It was a godsend. They were like angels,” Cameron said of her fellow VOA Oregon team.
The residents arrived at Lambert House before Avery and Cameron, who were loading and hauling their belongings from CCC. When Avery and Cameron arrived, the residents were all set with snacks and settled in their new location.
Cameron and residents were at Lambert House for 8 days. While there, Lisa and Julie provided activities including bingo, coloring, and movies. Avery and Alison ran errands to pick up prescriptions and other essential items for residents. Everyone came together to get through the difficult time. “The residents took care of each other. They are very caring and loving or each other,” shared Cameron.
In normal conditions, evacuating from a wildfire can be stressful and chaotic. Now imagine doing it during a pandemic. “The fires were challenging, but also trying to keep everyone in COVID-19 mode during evacuation was very difficult,” explained Avery. “We had Legacy Health come to Lambert House to test everyone for COVID-19 after evacuation, especially since we were all at CCC. But no one came home sick. Everyone remained healthy.”
As Avery and Cameron worked long days helping to make sure the residents had everything they needed, they were also concerned about what they would come back to. Both also living in Estacada, Cameron on site at Whispering Pines, had not only helped all the residents, but also evacuated themselves and family members from town. “When we got the message that the town was pulling everyone out, I just took a deep breath, and thought, okay everything I know, and love is probably going to be gone. There was nothing I could do. I just had to let it all go in that moment,” Avery explained.
The following Thursday the evacuation level in Estacada moved to a Level 2 and residents were able to return to Whispering Pines. “Coming back home was so surreal, there was a moment where I had to accept that everything was just going to be gone.” When they returned, they found no damage. Only ash to clean up and smoky air. “This column was supposed to collapse on itself and take out the whole city. We were so lucky that it didn’t.”
While evacuated, the city had shut down the power to prevent further fires from starting. This meant spoiled food that had remained and a need for meals for residents. There was a fire relief station of supplies set up for people in town. Truckloads of food boxes delivered to Whispering Pines for residents by people in the community. “There are generations and generations of families who live here. The citizens of Estacada care about this place deeply.”
Though the Whispering pines building was spared by the fire along with most of the town, the destruction from the fire is still present. “Driving through the outskirts of town everything is all green and you turn a corner, and everything is gone,” shares Avery. “We live in the Mt. Hood National Forest, there is no way that this is a one-time thing. We are going to see it more and more. It is very eye opening for what we need to do.”
As the team reflects on their experience, they continue to look at the positive. “I am grateful that the rest of the agency came together like they do and supported us,” Cameron says. “I couldn’t have done it without the staff at VOA Oregon: Avery, Lindsay, Elizabeth, Alison, Lisa, and Julie.”