Cheryl Ray moved to Oregon about eight years ago from Texas after losing two homes, one in Galveston when she had to be rescued from the rooftop during Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and when her roof collapsed in Houston during Hurricane Ike in 2008.
On Friday morning, Ray woke up among about 65 fire evacuees sheltered by the American Red Cross in the Oregon Convention Center. Many of the people arrived from Clackamas County, including some who had to be moved from a different shelter at Clackamas Community College in Oregon City when fire risk forced them out.
Ray, 60, and some of her neighbors in Oregon City had piled into a truck about 2 p.m. Thursday to leave town amid a Level 2 “Get Set” evacuation notice and arrived in Portland five hours later after sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic.
Ray said she suffers from chronic pulmonary disease and was bothered by the smoke that seeped into her house. She left behind her nebulizer but brought her personal journal and her Bible, as well as her two dogs, Luna and Sandy, who were huddled in a crate beside her cot.
“I had my windows taped up, but it was still smoky. The sky was red and ashes were falling all over the place. It was really scary,” Ray said. ” I’m praying I don’t lose everything again. I’m hoping the rain comes soon.”
The convention center is now housing three different shelters: one run by Multnomah County that has operated during the coronavirus pandemic for about 100 homeless people and now two more — the new 300-bed shelter for fire evacuees and a so-called severe weather shelter for anyone who needs refuge from the poor air quality from the wildfire smoke.
“We know this is a very difficult and stressful time for folks who have been impacted by the wildfires,” said Chad Carter, head of the American Red Cross’ Cascade region. “Primarily it’s an opportunity for them to relax and know they have a safe place to be.”
The Red Cross has mobilized volunteers from around the state and from other parts of the country to assist in Oregon, Carter said. They’re providing three meals, cots, blankets and showers to the evacuees. A TV also was set up in the shelter and one area was set aside for people with small pets.
Chris Voss, Multnomah County’s emergency management director, said a call came in Thursday afternoon from Clackamas County and state officials who said they needed to move people from the community college shelter location out to a safer spot.
Firefighters had been struggling to hold back quickly growing fires in Clackamas County since Sunday night. But the circumstances turned even more dire Thursday as it became likely that two of the state’s largest fires would combine. The Riverside fire started in Clackamas County and has flared to 130,049 acres. The Beachie Creek fire originated in Marion County and raced over 186,000 acres.
“Obviously, we wanted to lend any support that we possibly could,” Voss said. “We’re going to continue to try to do that to the extent we possibly can.”
Jennifer Masotja, emergency manager for Multnomah County’s Human Services Department, said shelter cots are physically distanced and meals are pre-prepared and distributed to shelter residents. ” We will run as long as we have to,” she said.
The Joint Office of Homeless Services on Friday also started to distribute thousands of N-95 masks to people living outside for protection from the smoke.
Scott Gee, 65, who owns a 36-acre farm nine miles south of Molalla, had evacuated his family Tuesday to the Clackamas Community College shelter site. On Thursday, he went back to the family property to check on it.
“I hosed everything down and fed my livestock,” he said.
As he was at his property, he learned his wife at the community college had to be evacuated from there to the convention center in Portland because the Clackamas County threat level had risen. He drove and met her at the convention center about 8 p.m. Thursday.
Gee said he’s lived on the Molalla-area farm for 40 years. His pickup was filled with some clothes, toiletries, his two dogs and a chicken caged in the back.
Anxious and worried about his home, he stood and talked with his brother and a friend, also evacuees from Molalla, in a parking lot across from the convention center.
His brother, Roy Gee, 59, said he and his friend drove back to Molalla about 6 a.m. Friday to check on their home. Police were on bullhorns advising residents in the area to leave, he said.
“Nobody was there. We were sitting in the front room of the house and it was orange all around it,” Roy Gee said.
He picked up a handful of soot outside the house and it felt warm in his hand. “That’s when I said we got to get out of here.”
Scott Gee talked about the antique motorcycles stored on his property, “every tree on it I planted” and the turkeys, chickens, pigs and rabbits that remained.
“I just let everything loose,” he said. “They’re better off loose than they are penned up. At least it gives them a fighting chance.”
He kept repeating: “I need to get home and get stuff taken care of. I want to get back up there.”
Back inside the convention center, Linda Johnson, 54, said she was just thankful to be in a safe place. She was with her husband, Lonnie Johnson, 68, and they both use electric scooters for mobility.
The manager of the couple’s Oregon City building, Hilltop Court Apartments, helped arrange for them to be driven Thursday night by AMR Ambulance to the convention center. Linda Johnson has multiple sclerosis and her husband has had three strokes and five heart attacks.
They brought their medications, their scooters, a couple of pairs of pants and shirts and a folder holding their important personal papers and medical records.
“Lonnie and I have been praying that God will put out the fires,” said Linda Johnson, who celebrated her 20th wedding anniversary on Aug. 17 . “I feel safe, as long as I’m here with Lonnie.”
Anyone can arrive at the shelter at the Oregon Convention Center 24 hours a day. The entrance is by the back loading dock. Anyone seeking shelter to obtain respite from the smoke should call 211 to check what’s available. Two more sites were being made available for people experiencing homelessness at the Charles Jordan Community Center and Mt. Scott Community Center. Those wishing to volunteer with the American Red Cross can go to redcross.org.
— Maxine Bernstein
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