Doug Lewis and Judi Christiansen had been ready to embark on their much-needed vacation scheduled for this week — a camping trip, complete with a plan to raft along the Snake River.
That didn’t happen. Instead, as wildfires advanced toward their home in Canby, Ore., the couple and Lewis’ sister, Bev Lewis of Hubbard, loaded up an RV. They took their four dogs, a few important personal documents, some family photos, and the valuable jewelry. They also packed enough clothes to get by in case their homes burned to the ground.
Then they drove north. They arrived Friday at ilani, the casino at the Cowlitz Indian Tribe Reservation, where fire evacuees are being invited to camp in their vehicles. They’re prepared to hunker down there for the next week.
“The main thing is we’ve got a roof over our head,” Bev Lewis said, standing outside her RV on Saturday morning, letting the dogs stretch their legs. Wildfire smoke clogged the air, which has been rated as “hazardous” by the Washington Department of Ecology since Thursday.
Their RV was one of a six in the casino’s parking lot, along with a trailer, three long-haul truck cabs and a handful of cars.
The trio evacuated early — Hubbard and Canby were under Level 2 evacuation orders, which means residents don’t need to go but should be ready to — because they didn’t want to find themselves stuck on the road.
Doug Lewis, who drives a truck for a Milwaukie, Ore., shipping company, said the whole thing just felt surreal. He, 59, and Christiansen, 57, have lived in Canby their whole lives. They said they’ve never seen a wildfire season like this one.
“It was like watching TV, but we were in it,” he said.
“It happened so fast,” added Christiansen, who works for the city of Canby. “At least we all are together. Things can be replaced. Human life can’t.”
The family was among the tens of thousands of Oregon residents fleeing their homes this week as wildfires rage across the state. In Clark County, where residents have so far been spared the worst of the fires, groups are organizing to provide resources to evacuees.
The Clark Regional Emergency Services Agency, or CRESA, is coordinating with Clackamas County officials, the organization announced in a Facebook post on Friday. ilani offered up its parking lot for the influx of displaced Oregonians seeking temporary accommodations, and CRESA is “working to identify additional locations throughout Clark County (where) people can park temporarily for a few days during these evacuations.”
Eric Frank, CRESA’s emergency management coordinator, said he’s working with local faith-based organizations as well as regular members of the public who have offered up space.
“Currently, outside of the initial request that came in the other night, shelter locations on the Oregon side of the river still have capacity to handle evacuees needing space,” Frank said.
“The outpouring support from the community has been amazing,” he added. “As always, residents in Clark County step up when the need arises.”
At Living Hope Church, volunteers are ready to mobilize to turn the church into an overnight shelter for people displaced by fires. They also plan to move their city-sanctioned outdoor tent encampment — for local people without homes — indoors for the time being due to the dangerous air quality.
The church’s overnight homeless shelter can house around 35 people. On top of that, they’re ready to take in about 50 wildfire evacuees should the need arise, Pastor Brian Norris said.
So far they don’t have any fire evacuees. Norris said he planned to bring residents of the outdoor homeless encampment inside starting Saturday night.
He’s confident the space is big enough to house that many people safely, even during the COVID-19 outbreak — the church occupies a former big box store at 2711 N.E. Andresen Road in Vancouver.
“We’re willing to open up, and we’ll see if people come,” Norris said. “I guess the good news is is people already have other places to go at this point.”
If any members of the public want to help, CRESA is urging people to focus their donations on regions more urgently impacted by the fires than Clark County. For a list of places to donate, visit http://cresa911.org/donations. The list includes the American Red Cross, Team Rubicon, Salvation Army, Northwest Baptist Disaster Relief, and the Wildland Firefighters Fund.