Banding together: Reflecting on community in wildfires’ wake

October 2020 Posted in Uncategorized
Mount Angel’s Magnolia Grill crew delivering food to frontline workers.

Mount Angel’s Magnolia Grill crew delivering food to frontline workers. Submitted Photo

By Melissa Wagoner

“Helping is easy. Being on the receiving end is difficult.”

Sheila Zervas Nielsen, a teacher at Silverton High School and resident of Gates, knows what she is talking about.

She, along with her husband Steve, also a Silver Falls School District employee, and their three sons, evacuated from their home on Sept. 7 escaping wildfires whipped up by a once-in-a-century windstorm that was racing through the Santiam Canyon. Then they began the process of volunteering wherever they could in order to save the homes of others.

“A motto we’ve had in life has been, ‘when we are helping others we heal,’” Nielsen said. “Many people in our lives have set that example and it’s what makes life go by a little easier for us.”

During September’s wildfires countless individuals, businesses and organizations stepped forward, often putting their own hardships aside, to help their friends, neighbors and community.

The sheer volume makes a comprehensive list next to impossible, but here are a few stories to remind us of the many.


Evacuation at Drakes Crossing

Julie Brown, her husband, Paul, and their sons, Jared and Lucas, have been volunteering with the Drakes Crossing Fire Department in some capacity for more than 25 years. So, when the Beachie Creek Fire made its way to the southeast corner of the Silver Falls State Park, they were ready to lend a hand. But first they had to evacuate their home in the Silverton hills and help Brown’s parents evacuate from their house on Grade Road as well.

“We threw stuff in my car and Paul’s pickup and headed out,” Julie Brown recalled. “The orange glow when we opened the garage door was eerie and scary. The entire tree line was illuminated.”

Evacuations complete, the Browns drove straight to the Drakes Crossing Fire Station. It was 6 a.m. and already an estimated 25 police cruisers lined the road, ready to help with area evacuations.

“I stayed back, running the command board, phones, radio communication, documenting resources,” Brown said. “People were calling to let us know they had (dozers, water sources, equipment, etc.)… That is what I did (‘command assistant’) for seven days. For 18 to 20 hours a day.”

While Brown manned the phone, the rest of her family headed out to fight the fires.

“I was so busy, I barely had time to think about our home, and my parents’ home where we all grew up,” Brown recalled. “In retrospect, that is a blessing.”

Her father is especially vulnerable due to his struggles with pancreatic cancer.

Another blessing was the community support that absolutely flooded into the Drakes Crossing station in the form of phone calls, food, drinks and even massages.

“I was turning people down because we literally had too much food and a tiny old fridge,” Brown divulged. Adding, “I’m telling you – all the generosity of our fellow human beings was one of the most emotional things I’ve experienced.”

Both the Browns’ home and Julie’s parents’ home survived the fires.


An expanding commitment

“Our part in [fighting the fires] is we had equipment and guys – dozers and excavators and water trucks,” Kerry Kuenzi, an owner of K&E Excavating in Silverton since 1998, said humbly. “It started out as we wanted to help our own, and then it blossomed from there.”

With the majority of its employee-volunteers having evacuated their own homes, K&E worked for days to create fire lines around properties in the Scotts Mills area.

“I’m from Silverton but we have a lot of people from Scotts Mills,” Kuenzi explained. “It’s been a huge undertaking but I’m really proud of our group.”

And he’s not just proud of the K&E group but of the entire community, including other contractors, who came out to lend a hand wherever it was needed.

“So many friends and neighbors that asked what they could do,” Kuenzi said. “That was pretty cool. It was cool to see everybody together, even competitors out there together. It’s pretty great when you see everybody pulling together, especially in this time of COVID.”

But while Kuenzi is proud of what volunteers accomplished, the real heroes, he is quick to point out, are the firefighters themselves.

“I would really like to give props to the Silverton Fire Department,” he said. “They did an amazing job.”


Whatever way possible

“We’re not really firemen,” Jesse Rodriguez, owner of Jesse Rodriguez Construction in Silverton, said of the effort he and four of his employees put in to help fight the fires in Scotts Mills.

“I was born and raised up there and I’ve got a lot of friends and family that live up there,” Rodriguez said. He had evacuated from his own home in Lyons. “And there was just a lot of social media stuff that the fire was here and the fire was there and I kind of wanted to see it for myself.”

And so, he joined the effort, driving tanker trucks of water that were emptied onto the roads.

“It was an amazing effort by all of the locals,” he said. “It’s kind of nice to see. If it weren’t for the locals up there… they saved quite a few houses. It was quite a deal.”

Rodriguez’s home is still standing.


Help from the region

When evacuation notices began popping up all over the Willamette Valley, Turney Excavating, based in Keizer, didn’t hesitate.

“[The] Turney bosses had an all-hands-on-deck approach and started sending their rigs and manpower to places that needed them – from Silverton and surrounding areas all the way up the canyon and surrounding communities,” recalled Sheila Nielsen. Her sons, Eli and Levi, both work for the company.

“One of the owners told one of our boys that ‘normal’ work will be there later. This was the most important work they could be doing. Helping people evacuate and the start of saving homes and property as much as possible,” she said.

So that’s what they did.

Working with local firefighters and canyon residents, they put out fires and saved as much property as they could – even while the fate of their own Gates home was unknown.

“All of my boys have played organized sports for a long time, they understand what it means to be part of a team, to have people you protect – a ‘band of brothers’ mentality,” Nielsen explained.

“They felt the same with all the people they were working with… They would really like their company to be recognized and then all the community members and volunteers that stepped in to save homes and their communities.”

The Nielsen’s home – though damaged by smoke and fire – is still standing.


Feeding the workers

Elizabeth Ipox, co-owner of Burger Time in Mount Angel, saw a Facebook post about firefighters needing food. She knew what she had to do.

“I wanted to help,” Ipox stated. “I knew I couldn’t go fight the fires but I knew I could help feed people. So, I reached out to Stephanie Baker, who was organizing meals for all the firefighters, got a couple of workers together and took care of feeding a couple of crews.”

For two days Ipox and her employees kept members of the local fire districts fed. Then, they branched out, including the staff of the Providence Benedictine Nursing Center as well.

“We feel for everyone that’s hard at work through COVID and this fire season,” Ipox said. “It’s the least we can do.”

“We wanted to do whatever we could but felt so helpless,” recalled Lindsay Allen, whose partner, Raul Santana, owns Magnolia Grill, also in Mount Angel.

Then they decided to play to their strength: “People need to eat!”

The duo began turning out burritos and fresh salsa, figuring that these would be a portable option for firefighters on the go.

“At a time like this we feel everyone has something to contribute and food was our outlet,” Allen said. “We were able to feed folks between Lyons and Gates, civilian workers as well as National Guard working up there… We have gotten hot dinners to them as well. We have also been able to provide dinners to people that have been evacuated and are without homes right now. It feels like the least we can do at a time like this.”


Getting the word out

When the COVID-19 quarantine began, Kristen Slavin – who has lived on Crooked Finger Road for three years – met her neighbors for the first time.

“We all have our own pieces of heaven up here in Scotts Mills, Slavin said. “We would all go to work and come home and stay home. Not really venturing out and meeting people. But one day, the first day of (COVID) quarantine, a little dog wandered onto our property.”

That little dog, belonging to a neighbor, got them all talking and thinking – what if we all got together and socialized?

“Ever since then, we meet every Friday night,” Slavin said. “It is a time when we can talk about how hard our weeks were, and how we were surviving COVID. Fridays have ended up being the one day of the week we all look forward to.”

Then the wildfires hit and the group – which is playfully named the Quarantini – took on a whole new meaning.

“[O]nly one of us got the evacuation order,” Slavin said. “If it wasn’t for Colleen, we would have never known that we needed to get out.”

Word went out to the entire group and everyone got away safely. But the story didn’t end there.

“None of our husbands or sons were firefighters or had a lot of training,” Slavin said. “Each of them saw a need for more hands on the fire and didn’t hesitate to jump in and help (like so many in our community have). They were driven to help cut fire lines and put out the hot spots both in the immediate areas near our houses, as well as those around other homes down the hill and across the canyon. None of them were willing to lose their lands or their community without a fight.”

Those who weren’t on the fire lines stayed connected.

“Every time one of us would run up the hill we would let each other know,” Slavin recalled. “Any time we were wondering where a husband was, who was fighting the fire, we would ask ‘Does anyone have eyes on…?’ We knew no matter what, one of us had information and eyes on our homes or family.”

Now they’re back to Friday night gatherings. “[W]e see each other as family and a community with unbreakable bonds,” Slavin said.

None of the Quarantini group lost their homes.


Organized and ready

A Red Cross evacuation site, the Oregon State Fairgrounds in Salem provided safe harbor for both people and animals during the wildfires.

“I think so many people want to volunteer, they just don’t know where or how,” Erica Rumpca, a Silverton High grad, real estate agent, and volunteer with the Red Cross, speculated. “But the fairgrounds has a SignUpGenius. And if you have a food handler’s permit you can sign up to hand out meals.”

“I can’t say enough for what the County and the Fair Board have accomplished there in just a few days,” Silverton Mayor, Kyle Palmer posted on Facebook. He toured the fairgrounds Sept. 12.

“People and vehicles were everywhere, as were every kind of animal. Donations are streaming in, and County officials singled out Wilco for their constant flow of feed. Volunteers were everywhere. I recognized many, many names of Silverton area animal owners all over the place.

“In the face of tragedy, the best in us almost always shows up – thanks to everyone who has been working to make this happen,” Palmer said.

To find out more go to


Volunteers assist animal owners in the Oregon State Fairgrounds stables. CHRISTINE GUENTHER

Volunteers assist animal owners in the Oregon State Fairgrounds stables. Christine Guenther

Caring for other creatures

Christine Guenther and her daughter Elsie Brown are horse people – it’s both their livelihood and their life. And so, when the call went out on Sept. 8 that animals in the hills surrounding Silverton needed to be evacuated, Christine and Elsie didn’t hesitate to help – even when helping meant sleeping in the barn aisles at the Oregon State Fairgrounds for six days straight.

“We wanted to help in any way we could,” said Christine, who evacuated her home outside of Silverton on Sept. 8. “I am not a firefighter or a first responder, but this – taking in horses – was something I could easily do.”

With 21 horses – and one unnamed and unclaimed donkey – under their care, Christine and Elsie fed, watered and cleaned stalls. Most importantly, they kept watch over the animals when their owners could not. It was the caring attitude of the other volunteers that most touched Christine’s heart.

“The organizers of this animal evacuation site – Danielle Bethell, Corri Falardeau and Matt Lawyer (from the Keizer Chamber of Commerce) and their team of volunteers at the fairgrounds,” Christine wrote in a Facebook post, “I can’t even begin to tell you what a difference they have made for us. Evacuating horses is not easy and they have surrounded us every step of the way – meeting physical and emotional needs sometimes before we can even express them.

“The fairgrounds is being run with the expertise of the finest organizers – there isn’t a moment of disorganization here. I cannot even fathom all of the details. There are 300-plus horses here – many without owners and these horses are being fed, watered and having their stalls cleaned all by this newly formed team of volunteers… I cannot begin to express what a blessing Danielle Bethell, the many volunteers from the Keizer Chamber of Commerce and the dozens upon dozens of others who are behind the scenes making all of this possible.”

Guenther’s home is still standing.


Focusing on the financial

Credit unions are founded on one core principle – people helping people, according to Kim Hanson, Executive Director of the Maps Community Foundation.

And so, when the wildfires raged through the mid- Willamette Valley where more than 70,000 Maps Credit Union customers live and work, Maps executives knew they had to help.

“We needed to respond quickly to provide support to our Maps staff, members and community – both to meet immediate basic needs and relieve financial stress, and to design a response that also addressed the longer-term recovery and rebuilding efforts,” Hanson explained.

What developed was a many-pronged relief effort including a Member Assistance Program, offering emergency loans, skipped payments, loan deferrals on a case-by-case basis, waived fees and other financial support.

They reached out personally to nearly 1,200 Maps members who live up the Santiam Canyon or in Scotts Mills to determine who was impacted directly by the fires. The goal was to offer a range of support, from assistance with immediate basic needs to connections to community resources via the Maps Community Foundation.

There were “teams of employees working nights and weekends to make these calls,” Hanson said.

Even so, Maps couldn’t do it alone.

“[W]e are accepting donations from members who were not impacted but wish to help our neighbors in need,” Hanson said. “One hundred percent of donations will go to assisting other Maps members with immediate needs today and in the coming months as they work to rebuild their lives. Every dollar donated for ‘Members helping Members’ will be matched by an additional dollar from the Maps Community Foundation, up to $50,000.”

In the meantime, Maps has also placed employee donation boxes at each branch, contributed financially to the United Way of the Mid-Willamette Valley and the Santiam Service Integration Team, and delivered food and drinks to the Stayton and Sublimity Fire Districts.

“This is our community and home for the majority of our staff and members,” Hanson stressed. “We will give-back as much as we can to help those impacted.”


Resources beyond dollars

“It’s grassroots – homegrown,” Kristin Howard, creator of Adopt-A-Family Oregon, explained. The organization is not a non-profit and does not take in money of any kind.

“We started it years ago during Hurricane Katrina,” she recalled. “We hooked up people who wanted to help.”

This time – with the crisis is in her own backyard — Howard, a Keizer resident, has launched the helpers’ platform once again.

“We, as a team, can mobilize help,” she said. “It’s hands across the country holding people together.”

Solely based on Facebook, Adopt-A-Family Oregon matches those who need help in the form of goods, services or goodwill with those who want to lend a hand. Clothing requests, wheelchair needs and sometimes a place to stay for the night, are all listed on the site. Howard tries her best to match volunteers to needs.

“Most of what we’re doing is connecting people to walk through this together,” she said.


A shared sense of community

“We didn’t do any of this for recognition,” Lindsay Allen of Magnolia Grill said. “We feel so many people are doing so much more. Many businesses have jumped in with both feet to help.”

Time and again, those interviewed for this story interrupted their own tales to mention those who they felt had done more.

“[M]y heart was deeply touched by the overwhelming sense of community and Silverton’s ability to help each other,” Christine Guenther said.

“Volunteers and other helpers worked alongside the fire fighters, first responders and construction workers. Collectively, we all did what we could do and together our town did something truly remarkable.”

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