Communities step up as wildfires devastate
Showing grit and resilience, neighbors reach out to help in disaster’s aftermath
As the French Creek fire burned in the night outside of Glide on Sept. 7, Abigail Malek posted to social media: “If you have friends out there, check with them to see if they need any help.” And while she helped evacuate her neighbors, offers of help flooded in.
“People started reaching out to me personally, saying ‘hey, we’ve got a truck and trailer,’ and ‘hey, we have an excavator,’” Malek says. When the Archie Creek fire, burning to the south of the French Creek fire, began to threaten the town itself, she remembered the offers for help. Through a Facebook group she created, Glide Strong, she started connecting people with resources to people with needs.
people from all over had resources to assist
And people from all over, it turns out, had resources to assist. Offers to help evacuate and bring in equipment such as water trucks and bulldozers came in from Douglas County and beyond. Volunteers organized food and supply donations right away.
“If there was a need, we put it up on Facebook, and we had 10 people jump up and say, ‘we can help with that,’” Malek says. These grassroots efforts were crucial for filling the void left by overtaxed firefighting resources. In early September, over a million acres of wildfire were burning in the state, five other communities were facing similar disasters, and even more fires burned out of control in the American West.
In Lane County, the Holiday Farm fire destroyed swaths of homes and several businesses in the communities of Vida and Blue River. The Santiam fire destroyed nearly 70% of the businesses and public buildings in Detroit, while the Slater fire in Northern California burned 150 homes in the small community of Happy Camp. In totally destroyed communities such as Talent and Phoenix, most of the homes burned were affordable housing critical to the community.
During the days after Douglas Forest Protective Agency’s initial response and before taxed federal resources made it to Glide, community volunteers led the wildfire response on their neighbors’ properties. Local contractors and loggers used their equipment to construct fireline. People with hand tools drove around putting out spot fires, and volunteers with trucks and trailers evacuated livestock, people and possessions.
At the end of the day, people lined up at the 138 Grill and Little Pizza Paradise for free, volunteer-prepared meals.
“Successful communities begin working on resilience before they need it, and leaders in the Glide area have been doing that,” says Roque Barros, director of the Ford Institute for Community Building. “When the fire came, they had community builders who could quickly pivot to disaster response through relationships they had already built. That’s the power of community building.”
After a summer of COVID-19 restrictions and a tense political environment, it was easy to forget the connection the community had, Malek says. “But after something like this happens, and people come together to help, I realized people are just awesome.”
Connecting help with need
By the time the Archie Creek fire was contained, most of the residents of Glide had experienced a loss of home, property or timber. For Malek, who was busy coordinating people through the Glide Strong page, it was time to get to work. She grabbed some volunteers and a few laptops and took over a corner table at the 138 Grill to begin the recovery efforts.
Covering immediate physical needs was the first order of business, and Glide Strong organizers set up a donation center in the middle school gymnasium. The space was quickly flooded with food, clothing and supplies from donations throughout the state. Their needs were covered so quickly that they were able to send overflow goods to other nonprofits in places like Jackson County, where wildfires also devastated small communities.
“Glide Strong was just a social media hashtag at first,” says Malek. “But now it’s an important tool to keep up momentum, and keep people involved in the process.”
Most of the official recovery work is done through an existing 501(c)(3) nonprofit, Glide Revitalization, for which Malek now serves as assistant director. Alison Doty, the director, says that she founded the organization to encourage economic development in the community. Now, Gide Revitalization is the trusted liaison for community members and organizations such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency involved in disaster response.
Initially, volunteers were busy helping residents register for aid through FEMA, find housing and get the household goods they needed from the donation center. Now, volunteers are committed to rebuilding the community physically, financially and emotionally.
“Our goal is to get people back to Glide and find a place for them,” Doty says. Many people have donated unused RVs and camp trailers to house Glide families.
While Glide Revitalization helps families get their properties cleaned up, organizers are offering a host of workshops to help families navigate the sudden emotional and financial burden. The first sessions on mental health were a success. “They helped people share pent-up feelings of loss,” Doty says.
Many community members were counting on the timber on their property to fund their retirement, Doty says. Financial planning workshops helped people sort out disaster payments for destroyed houses and cash from the timber they were forced to harvest early, with the goal of a sustainable future life in Glide.
Community members are supporting each other in the rebuilding process, says Malek. That support is happening at important community hubs. “People come into places like the 138 Grill to sit and commiserate. It’s cathartic to be around neighbors that have suffered the same things,” she says.
Now, organizers are focused on setting up the systems for long-term recovery that will help residents get to their “new normal.” FEMA’s voluntary agency liaison program is busy integrating with Glide Revitalization to set up the organization to manage individual cases and plan for rebuilding.
Getting community members involved is important to FEMA, Malek says. The FEMA program prioritizes hiring from within the community to get case workers and construction managers who understand, and are trusted by, residents. A local construction company has been carrying out the bulk of the ash and trash cleanup.
Once the cleanup is done, the process of rebuilding homes will begin — work that will be ongoing for the next few years. Organizations like Habitat for Humanity have pledged their services, out-of-state contractors have volunteered to build several houses, and local businesses have donated gravel and lumber for Glide houses.
“We have a very generous community,” Doty says. “People have rallied to make sure that we help each and every one of our neighbors who were devastated by this fire. We can’t make them whole, but we can help get them to their new normal.”— Riley Rice, Writer
How to help
The devastating fires that swept through Oregon are over, but many families and communities still need help. Here’s how you can make a difference:
- Make a financial donation at redcross.org/donate or volunteer through redcross.org/volunteer.
- Visit OregonRecovers.org for how to volunteer and donate to organizations aiding in wildfire relief.
- Donate to the 2020 Community Rebuilding Fund at oregoncf.org, launched in partnership with Meyer Memorial Trust, Oregon Community Foundation and The Ford Family Foundation.
- Donate to West Coast Wildfire Relief Funds at unitedway.org.
- Check out Southern Oregon Emergency Aid’s Facebook page. SOEA represents trained volunteers who transport and house livestock and companion animals in response to disasters.