On Labor Day weekend of 2020, megafires ripped across the Western slopes of the Cascade Mountains in Oregon. The sky was colored in perpetual sunset hues, and the smoke was so thick it smelled like you were sitting around a campfire. If you were lucky enough to not be close to one of the fires, you still knew that the world around you was burning to the ground.
One of the larger fires that started that weekend was the Holiday Farm Fire. Sparked by a downed power line, the fire tore down the McKenzie River in the Willamette Valley. It burned 173,393 acres. One life was lost.
On September 7th Devin Thompson and his wife Brandi Crawford Ferguson got home from a backpacking trip celebrating Crawford Ferguson’s birthday.
That afternoon, as a rare easterly wind system brewed, they began planning a barbeque to continue the birthday festivities. By evening, wind carried smoke from the Lionshead Fire to the valley corridor. The barbeque was canceled.
At 9:00 p.m., Thompson and Crawford Ferguson went to bed unaware of the fire starting just 50 miles upriver from them.
When they finally woke up around 4:30 a.m., their phones were filled with missed calls and alert notifications.
“We were scrambling because we had a lot of friends upriver and were trying to figure out where they were at,” Thompson said. “That day was panic.”
The lower section of the river was at an evacuation Level Two, so the couple evacuated their chickens, dog and cat and took a few of their belongings to a friend's place in Eugene, not knowing what they would return home to. Luckily, the couple’s house survived the fire, and the very next day the two were back along the river helping survivors.
Following the fire, the fire department put out the call for single-use items, and the couple began working with the local Bi-Mart to get headlamps and food to the department for them to take upriver to survivors.
Thompson and Crawford Ferguson also helped to set up a relief center at the historic McKenzie fish hatchery and began working with organizations and community members to get resources out to people.
Reflecting on the immediate aftermath, Thompson said two of the biggest things missing were communication and trust. Because of the pandemic, government officials were mostly communicating with volunteers and survivors through Zoom, leaving gaps in updated knowledge and protocols. With the abounding uncertainty and trauma, it was often unclear where people should go for resources and assistance. Thompson was continuously in meetings, relaying information he was hearing from officials and organizations to his local community members.
As time passed, the media and outside relief organizations began to leave the area. But as winter came and went, the effects of the fire still gripped many of the people along the McKenzie River.
That next March, the Lane County Coalition of Organizations Active in Disaster reached out to Thompson. They said they were bringing in a woman from Washington state to help with longer-term recovery efforts.
That woman was Carlene Anders.
Anders is the executive director of the Okanogan Long Term Recovery Group in Washington. She is also the executive director of the Disaster Leadership Team, a nationwide nonprofit recovery organization. On top of that, she’s the mayor of Pateros, a town in Okanogan County.
The nonprofit Okanogan Long Term Recovery Group was formed in 2014 when the Carlton Complex Fire in Washington devastated Okanogan county, burning 553 structures totaling $29.5 million in damages.
Before the Carlton fires, Anders had been simultaneously running a preschool daycare, volunteering as a firefighter, coaching track for the school district, and directing the ski school. She was busy. After the fires, she got even busier. She spent the following months going around the county, meeting with FEMA and county officials and forming recovery effort groups.
Out of the efforts, came one centralized group– Carlton Complex Long Term Recovery Group. Anders became its executive director. The following August Okanogan was hit by another season of devastating fires. Because of the group, Anders said there was a “night and day difference” in the response.
A faint but purposeful path had already been carved out by last year’s traumatic experiences, and systems had been put in place by the Carlton Complex Long Term Recovery Group. Anders said that if the area hadn’t gone through the 2014 fires, the 2015 fires would have been much different and many more people would have died.
Even with previous experiences, trying to recover from a disaster is exhausting, and there are a lot of uncertainties.
In 2016, Jeff Khloer from the Mennonite Disaster Services heard about Ander’s work and reached out to her and other recovery leaders across the country. He was looking to create a way for people to come together, talk about their experiences, and learn and support one another through what they were going through with the increasing regularity of intense fire seasons.
Recovery leaders from the different groups came together and created the Disaster Leadership Team. Their goal is to have leaders who have experienced disasters help mentor people nationwide after disasters and to help create the next line of leaders.
And that’s exactly what Anders and the other members of the Disaster Leadership Team have been doing.
One of the priorities for the Disaster Leadership Team, when they come into a community, is finding someone to lead the future long term recovery group, and then finding the strongest combination of people to be on the board.
Anders uses her background working with a diverse set of groups to understand how different parts of communities work best together.
“You have to be humble. You have to be efficient. You can't second-guess yourself too much. You have to be pretty strong, but you can't be nasty. You can't be judgmental,” Anders said.
When Anders met with Thompson along the McKenzie River, she told him she only had 20 minutes to meet– she was making her way around to all the fire zones in Oregon that had been affected over Labor Day weekend in 2020. She had already met with other people involved with the McKenzie Valley recovery efforts and everyone she had been talking to said Thompson was a leader. She suggested he should be the one to start and lead a community-based long term recovery group.
“I said no. I don't even know what this is,” Thompson said in regard to the long term recovery group. Hours later, Anders was still with Thompson, nudging him forward towards leading a new group.
“I thought you only had like, 20 minutes,” Thomson said.
“I do,” Anders replied. “But this is important. You don't know how important this is.”
When Hurricane Michael hit the inner panhandle of Florida in 2018, Anders collaborated with locals there to help foster the creation of the North Florida Inland Long Term Recovery Group. Since then, the group has partnered with over 50 other organizations to serve Jackson and Calhoun County and has repaired over 500 homes.
“That was one of the amazing things that Carlene did, having the ability to come into a community from across the country, not knowing anybody, and figure out how to get a pulse by talking to people,” said Kevin Yoder, associate pastor at Rivertown Community Church in Marianna, Jackson County Florida and founding executive director of the North Florida Inland Long Term Recovery Group.
While the Florida group is in the process of scaling down four years after the hurricane, everything is in place to quickly scale back up for the next time a disaster hits.
“It took us six months to get operational. Because we had to lay all that foundation,” Yoder said. “Now we've got the foundation going forward.”
Anders explains it is all about helping people to see the big picture — to come in and use her past experiences with disaster to illustrate the roadmap forward.
“When your legs are knocked out from underneath you, you're trying to figure out where in the hell do I go. How are we going to fix this? And there is not a clear vision until people that have done it can show you how to do it,” Anders said. “And once that happens, I watch these people breathe differently.”
Anders said in an ideal world, every county across the country would have a long term recovery group functioning before disaster hit the area. Instead of reacting and being put back on their heels, communities would have mitigation and preparedness programs, and systems already put in place to relay resources and communications to people across an affected area. And in an even more ideal world, people from different parts of a community would learn to trust each other.
“This is going to be about taking whatever community, whatever level they're at, where whatever work they've done, and then taking it from there and creating a system that can stay in place,” Anders said.
Eventually, with some more persuasion by Anders and fellow McKenzie locals, Thompson finally agreed to lead the newly created McKenzie Valley Long Term Recovery Group.
Before the Holiday Farm Fire, Thompson had been semi-retired. He had worked in the wood products industry for 30 years on the research and development side of things– he had never started a nonprofit like the McKenzie Valley Long Term Recovery Group. He had been trying to figure out what the next 10 years of his life held when the fire struck the river community.
With mentorship from the Disaster Leadership Team, Thompson started off on the journey of helping to build back the McKenzie Valley.
“It’s a complete team effort. I could not do this without my board, and without these other organizations that cover my weaknesses,” Thompson said. “Because anybody who thinks they have the strengths to cover it all is doomed for failure.”
One of the critical organizations aiding in recovery efforts is Locals Helping Locals, which third-generation McKenzie River community member Cliff Richardson helped to start in the wake of the fire. With fingers deeply rooted within the communities along the corridor, Locals Helping Locals had trusting relationships to create a network of information and resources.
The two groups have been working in tandem for the past two and a half years to rebuild the McKenzie corridor — Locals Helping Locals being the boots on the ground, and McKenzie Valley Long Term Recovery Group securing grants and funding through the county.
One of the key components to long term recovery groups is having an unmet needs initiative — a place where disaster case managers and partnered organizations help sort through survivor cases and quickly and effectively parcel out funds and resources.
Fire survivors can either reach directly out to the recovery group or can go through a disaster case manager, who can then connect with the group. The case managers will work with survivors to figure out specific needs and then the recovery group will meet with partnered organizations, such as Rotary District 5110 or United Way of Lane County to see if any of the partners can support funds through an unmet needs roundtable. According to the recovery group, the initiative has so far awarded over $300,000.
A grant from the Oregon Community Credit Union has created a program for survivors who are currently living in RVs or trailers to help weatherize their vehicles for winter months with pipe insulation and adding heated water hoses and skirting. Locals Helping Locals is also helping the recovery group disburse propane vouchers for the colder winter months.
Even with the support of the long term recovery group and Locals Helping Locals, rebuilding has been a challenge each step of the way.
“The McKenzie community wants to be independent, we want to be resilient, we want to be able to take care of ourselves,” Richardson said. “Here we are two years out, and we're still looking for resources for people to get back home. And that shouldn't have to happen.”
Richardson came out of retirement to help start Locals Helping Locals and be a part of the McKenzie recovery. Lots of people, including Anderson, dropped previous jobs to support their communities after the disaster, and while exhausting, it has proven to be critical impactful work.
The need for long term recovery groups is only increasing.
The National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration has recorded that “2022 is the eighth consecutive year (2015-2022) in which 10 or more billion-dollar weather and climate disaster events have impacted the United States.” Prior to this, there have been only five total recorded years amounting to that damage. As climate disasters become more intense and frequent, situations like that of the McKenzie will become more common.
The United States Forest Service says, "wildfires have always occurred in the Oregon Cascades in what are now wilderness areas."
It’s not a matter of if, but when the communities along the Mckenzie River will see wildfire again.
“We're wiser at how to handle this situation,” Thompson said. “And will there be mistakes? Yes. But we've learned a lot from this.”