Sept. 12, 2020 — Much of the western United States has been blanketed by a thick layer of smoke since Monday night as eastern-blowing winds brought dry heat to California, Oregon and Washington. This has compounded already dry conditions and sparked wildfires in both rural and heavily populated areas. In the first days of an emergency of this scale, official reports and social media pages have been limited to getting areas evacuated and keeping people safe.
“In an emergency like this, and this is a fast-moving emergency, the first 24-48-72 hours in this case, all you'll see those responders talking about is life and safety,” said Megan Messmer, City of Florence Public Information Officer and coordinator of Western Lane Emergency Operations Group. “They're getting people to safety because it is basically now or never for some of those areas.”
The City of Florence partners with many governments and agencies across the state, including Lincoln County, where the Echo Mountain Complex fire is burning, and the eastern part of Lane County, where the Holiday Farm Fire is burning. Like other groups, it is in communication with the Red Cross and is ready to assist with evacuees.
“In the first few days, you don’t see a lot of where people can donate from the official sources. … Once people are safe, then we can figure out the community can wrap around them and provide the support and help they need,” Messmer said. “That's what you're starting to see yesterday and today.”
Towards the end of this week, local community members started several drives for water, food and other supplies. Unfortunately, however, it was unclear on what could be accepted by the Red Cross. Other than financial donations, the threat of COVID-19 has changed how people can give in an emergency.
That didn’t stop Dani Flescher, real estate broker at Coldwell Banker Coast Real Estate, from stepping up to see what donations would be acceptable.
“In the last 48 hours, I’ve been trying to figure out how we can help the fires, evacuees and people affected by the fires all over the state, specifically directly to the east of us in the McKenzie area,” she said in a Facebook Live video on Friday.
When it became difficult to find answers online about donating, she reached out to local officials and spoke with them over the phone.
The main things she found out were the importance of money and how water is always needed by Oregon Red Cross and Lane County Community Organizations Active in Disaster (COAD), which are managing the Holiday Farm Fire temporary evacuation point at Silke Field, 908 N 10th Ave., Springfield.
“If you really want to help, monetary donations really are key right now. They’ve got a ton of stuff to give out, but they only have so much money to give out to hotel stays,” Flescher said, adding, “The monetary donations will help house these people and get them what they really need — which is a roof over their head.”
Locally, BJ’s Ice Cream in Florence is accepting donations of physical items, as it has room to store clothing and household items people may end up needing.
Flescher’s main project has been a water drive at Coldwell Banker, 100 Highway 101.
“The one thing they said they cannot have too much of is water, for both evacuees and the firemen (sic),” she said.
In addition to water, Coldwell Banker will be the gathering site for Gatorade, snacks, comfort items and fresh masks for firefighters in eastern Lane County.
“I know everybody just wants to help. Let’s stay positive and help out where we can,” Flescher said. “Just know that our community is amazing and we’re all reaching out. Things are being done.”
At the City of Florence, Messmer said she was grateful that the community was acting.
“We have all these people and this outpouring of support, which is amazing and great and is happening all over the state and the West Coast,” she said.
She also talked about the “behind the scenes” that people may be unaware of.
“Even if people didn’t necessarily hear from us in the beginning of this, we were working with our partners, as we do all the time,” Messmer said.
From coastal partners in Lincoln and Douglas counties to partners further east in Lane County, City of Florence is included in emergency response coordination with all its neighbors, including Dunes City and Mapleton.
“The nature of small towns is there’s lots of relationships and family relationships between all of our departments, so we all kind of know what’s going on,” she added.
Since the Echo Mountain Fire began on Sept. 7, City of Florence has been in communication with Lincoln County about local conditions and evacuations.
“They gave us a heads up to expect people,” Messmer said. “With that, our school district was in contact with the Red Cross and we’ve been in contact with the Red Cross.”
It is important that aid come through Red Cross for several reasons.
Firstly, Red Cross is equipped to help people with all their needs in an emergency. By providing shelter and other necessities, it prevents people from spending their own money.
“We all want to be helpful to our neighbors during these types of events. And that means, ‘How can I help coordinate a hotel room for them?’ Well, that may not be the most helpful,” Messmer said. “Them doing it on their own means that might not get covered by the Red Cross.”
While it can seem like it adds an extra step, the Red Cross is there specifically to add the financial support.
“We don’t want to create a financial emergency for these people while they’re facing a physical and emotional emergency,” Messmer said. “It’s sometimes a hard answer to say, ‘They really need to talk to the Red Cross’ — but that’s what they need to do to help our neighbors. We can provide our donations of funds to the Red Cross, which in turn goes to those people and anybody else impacted by disasters.”
In addition, places like the City of Florence and Siuslaw School District rely on the Red Cross to say when shelters can open up.
“It’s really important for us to coordinate with the Red Cross because that opens the door to cover the cost of providing that facility and the cost of supplies to get people what they need. Because we don’t have funds for that and the school doesn’t have them. Unfortunately, a lot of things do come down to money and that’s why we have that coordination,” Messmer said.
She continued, “Those costs can skyrocket swiftly, which is why the Red Cross asks for donations. They’re providing those benefits to communities. Whether it’s a large-scale wildfire like this, or if it’s a single house fire, they’re providing services to the community and others all over.”
If the Red Cross does decide to use Florence facilities, it already has coordination in place.
“We house Red Cross emergency supplies at our facilities, as do some other organizations,” Messmer said. “We have a generator and we have all those requirements to be shelters.”
However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, shelters may not open up.
“The Red Cross needs money, because they’re not doing the congregate sheltering. They’re putting people up at hotels and getting people RV spaces, so that’s what they need money for,” Messmer said. “If they need us to activate any shelters, we can do that. But they would be temporary shelters for people to get their information.”
The city currently does have some evacuees, with people accessing help through the Red Cross and Siuslaw Outreach Services.
In addition to emergency supplies, City of Florence is part of a statewide resource list of equipment they can offer.
“We are supporting our partners by being readied in general,” she added. “Not that COVID-19 has produced many good things, but one of the benefits has been our county, state and region have been activated for emergencies since the end of February and March. Any of those relationships that we did have prior to this have been strengthened, and we’ve added new relationships.”
Messmer also emphasized the extreme fire danger in the area right now.
According to Siuslaw Valley Fire and Rescue, a fire ban has been in place since June 15.
“Fire restrictions right now are at extreme,” Messmer said. “We are in high fire danger and there are restrictions in place right now.”
Those can be seen online at svfr.org.
Messmer also talked about patience. Many people in the region suffered when cell service was drastically reduced for several days.
“The cell service wasn’t great, and that wasn’t unique to us. It’s because cell towers are burning and being impacted,” she said. “That also includes the first responders fighting fires, who were having issues, too.”
She encouraged people to check proper sources and only share vetted information. The City of Florence Facebook page has a list of resources, and local media sources will also have information that has been checked out.
“It’s just a weird time, and how we helped last year is not how we can help this year,” Messmer said.
If people do want to help, United Way of Lane County has a Wildfire Resource page at www.unitedwaylane.org/; Lane County COAD has preparedness information at www.preparelane.org; and the Red Cross has local resources at www.redcross.org/local/oregon.html. Locally, Coldwell Banker and BJ’s are also prepared to take donations.
“There’s just so much happening at once in those first few hours and days, and it does take a while sometimes, but I’m glad people are coordinating those donations and getting them to the right people,” Messmer said. “And I’m sure those people will be very thankful.”
In her Facebook video, Flescher reminded people, “Our community is reaching out. Our city is prepared to help these people. They already are; there are some families here already that have been given hotel vouchers, as well as some other items to help them be more comfortable and fill their needs. … Some of the outreach people here … are prepared and working towards a plan on how we can reach out and help these communities.”