PORTLAND — Estacada High School’s graduating seniors stride through the halls of their town’s elementary and middle schools every spring, retracing the footsteps of their youth to cheers from community members and former teachers.
But the schools were quiet as classes closed last spring, with COVID-19 pausing the tradition for the first time in recent memory.
The schools’ silence marked the first of several hardships faced by the small city in rural Clackamas County over the past year.
Devastating wildfires would eclipse COVID-19 as Estacada’s most pressing concern, if only temporarily, and one of the worst ice storms in years left the community without power for days during the dead of winter.
Then, this spring, a beloved middle school teacher died of the virus and three teenagers were killed in a Memorial Day car crash that left the community reeling.
Hundreds attended a memorial for the teens, the setting sun illuminating the mourners’ faces as they shared heartfelt stories of those they lost.
And the following week, Estacada’s 2021 graduates gathered for their walk — outdoors, and without the usual high-fives and hugs. But after a difficult year, the celebration was a hopeful sight for residents who pride themselves on their independence, pride and fierce community spirit.
‘THIS IS GOING TO GET UGLY’
Lisa Homan could tell right away.
A former volunteer firefighter, she knew the smoke cloud visible Sept. 8 from Oregon 224 signaled a wildland blaze.
And when she ran into Estacada Mayor Sean Drinkwine at the city’s post office that morning, she told him to prepare for the worst.
“Sean, this is going to get ugly,” she told him.
The Riverside fire would in the ensuing days grow to more than 130,000 acres and engulf Clackamas County.
The blaze moved to Estacada’s doorstep, prompting city-wide evacuation orders and burning homes and a church on the outskirts of town.
“You go 100 yards outside of town, you can see the devastation,” Drinkwine said.
Fire officials had their hands full. But the overwhelming sentiment in Estacada is that citizen firefighters — not professionals — saved the town.
Residents banded together in impromptu teams to save homes: using bulldozers, tractors, water trucks and sometimes shovels alone to protect their livelihoods and land.
It’s this self-sufficient attitude that defines Estacada, residents said.
Marvin Flora, owner of Lew’s Drive-In, initially followed Level 3 evacuation orders and left town.
But he quickly heard that residents had stayed behind to fight the flames, and he returned the next day to prepare hot meals for those in need.
Flora took to Facebook, seeking volunteers to drive food to residents’ homes, and was met with an overwhelming response. More than 30 people called the first day, and at one point, Flora was directing 14 drivers at once.
By the time the worst danger had passed, his restaurant workers were handing out hundreds of meals each day.
“When you have a small community like this, no matter what happens, everybody comes together,” said Flora, 65. “I could not believe the amount of people that volunteered.”
The groundswell of support included seemingly every person in town.
The nonprofit Estacada Community Watch collected thousands of pounds of clothing and food — and operated a relief center that also served as a command center for first responders.
Teachers, their first week of classes derailed by the wildfires, contacted students’ families to ensure they were safe.
Bus drivers ferried supplies to families in need.
And residents pitched in, loaning equipment to citizen firefighters and donating food and supplies.
“It still makes me choke up thinking about how amazing the outpouring that came out of our community was,” said Kari Hulsey, a fourth-grade teacher at Clackamas River Elementary School.
‘THEY DON’T GIVE YOU A HANDBOOK’
Sitting on the banks of the Clackamas River just 30 miles from downtown Portland, Estacada was once a bustling timber industry hub. The recession in the early 1980s hit the state’s timber economy hard, affecting Estacada and other communities dependent on natural resources.
But Estacada invested in manufacturing, and its industrial park is expanding. Businesses in the glass, electric, trucking and metal fabrication industries have moved to town, and a cross-laminated timber manufacturing business is setting up shop soon, Drinkwine said.
The city has also become a popular summertime destination with a thriving arts scene and festivals that draw attendees from throughout the state.
And while a 2019 estimate put the city’s population at under 3,500, Drinkwine expects upcoming U.S. Census Bureau figures will be much higher.
“You can just count the developments that have moved into this area, and you’ll see a bigger number than that,” he said.
Estacada’s tumultuous year has kept its top elected official working around the clock — not counting his work as a small business owner alongside his wife, Mary Whitney. He said the past year has been far and away the most difficult in his five-year tenure as mayor.
“They don’t give you a handbook on how to deal with fires that nearly burn your city up and ice storms that set you back months in the power grid,” Drinkwine said. “They don’t tell you what to do when a pandemic rips through your city, and there’s just no easy answer for that one.”
When businesses were hit hard by the COVID-19 shutdown, Drinkwine advocated for their reopening in the face of state restrictions. Estacada residents, many of whom are independent business owners, were calling him two to three times a night with concerns about how they were going to survive financially, he said in December.
Valerie Ballantyne, owner of Hitchin’ Post Pizza and the Watering Hole Saloon, said her businesses have been shut down four times — because of COVID-19, wildfires, ice storms and again for the virus.
She’s lost a lot of money, but she’s surviving.
“Every little town in America right now is facing harder and harder times,” Drinkwine said. “And I think people got to reach out and keep these rural communities, because I think they make a difference.”
UNITED IN GRIEF
One was a confident, energetic middle-schooler. Another, a goofball and class clown. The third, a friend who “gave the best hugs in the world.”
Reagan Alves, 14; Jordan Stores, 17; and Zackary Briant, 18, were killed in a Memorial Day car crash, marking the latest tragedy to hit home in Estacada.
Only one passenger survived the crash, and driver Devin Kurtz, 18, was indicted on three counts of second-degree manslaughter and a single count of driving under the influence of intoxicants, among other charges.
More than 400 people showed up at a candlelight vigil two days after the crash — an impressive show of community support in the wake of yet another tragedy.
Friends, family members, neighbors, teachers, coaches and teammates were among those who attended the vigil. But many attendees didn’t know the teens showed up as well — to grieve together, hold a hand or light a candle.
“One of the beautiful things about our town is that nobody’s going to let somebody go through anything alone,” Estacada Community Watch President Brandy Litkie said. “I think it’s a heaviness that’s being felt right now, but eventually we’ll find a way to get through it.”
The deaths were the latest blow to a community rattled by the recent deaths of other residents, including Samantha Fox, a 46-year-old teacher who died of COVID-19 in May. Fox, who taught sixth- and seventh-grade language arts, was a beloved community member who spent more than 20 years teaching in the school district.
Hulsey, 45, said she and Fox were hired the same year and taught together for many more.
“I saw a lot of support in, you know, just being allowed to publicly grieve,” Hulsey said. “I don’t have to hide it and I don’t have to not deal with it.”
Parents of Hulsey’s students reached out to make sure she was OK, for example, and her 27 fourth-graders understood when she cried in class.
The Estacada School District also provided counseling and support for students and staff.
Hulsey said the “tidal wave of support” lent credence to an unofficial slogan the city adopted during the wildfires: “Estacada Strong.”
“I have to tell you, I’ve been here 22 years and I have never thought of teaching in another community,” Hulsey said.
HANDLING HARDSHIP TOGETHER
Hawaii. Oklahoma. Nevada. North Dakota.
Litkie has lived all over the country, but Estacada is home.
“This is what we want for our daughter,” she said.
Her husband, Joel Litkie, is a city councilor and cybersecurity analyst. And running the community watch has become her full-time job.
The nonprofit’s volunteers plan city celebrations and Halloween haunted houses. They help residents pay their bills and put food on the table. They prepare Thanksgiving food boxes and Christmas presents for families.
Brandy Litkie’s cellphone is like a phonebook for the city, with pages upon pages of residents’ names and notes about how they can help — “Lisa Help With Prepared Meals,” or “Marlene Has Donations.”
“Regardless of what your belief system is, regardless of what your political affiliation is, when times get hard, our town has a unique way of being able to just come together and work hard to make sure that we take care of one another,” she said.
The group’s work contributes to an ethos felt throughout the city: If residents decide to do something, they’ll make it happen.
And when repeated hardships hit, they trudge forward — together.