Shelters Become Homes To Hundreds As Gorge Fires Rage On

Sep 7, 2017
Originally published on September 11, 2017 4:57 pm

Before the fire, the Skamania County Fairgrounds were empty. Now, the sun-scorched field is full of RVs and tents.

Almost everyone here has been evacuated from Cascade Locks, on the Oregon side of the Columbia River Gorge. Others have fled the Archer Mountain Fire, which started when the Eagle Creek Fire jumped the river earlier this week into Washington state.

As wildfires have swept across Oregon and Washington this summer, emergency shelters have become temporary homes for hundreds of people and, in some cases, their pets.

Robert Loomis moved to Cascade Locks not even a month ago from Hood River.

He’s retired. For years, he ran an orchard and drove a logging truck. Last weekend, he was forced to leave his apartment.

“Just my luck," Loomis said. "I’m there for a month and they evacuate us.”

About 1,200 people live in Cascade Locks. According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, 18.6 percent of the town’s residents live in poverty. There are small businesses, hotels and restaurants, but no major employer.

The Eagle Creek Fire forced the town to shut down during Labor Day weekend, traditionally a busy time with holiday travelers.

On a recent day this week, Loomis sat on the back seat of his minivan. He’s removed the seat from the van, placed it on the ground like a chair and turned to face the fire across the river. Next to him, the tent he pitched for the night. The rear door of his van was open. Inside were a pair of boots and a fishing rod.

Like everything in the Gorge, it’s hot, windy and the air is thick with smoke; completely miserable conditions for camping.

Loomis said he’s heard fire crews are set up in the parking lot outside his apartment building.

“They got everything under control it looks like, except for getting the fires out, which I don’t know how they’ll ever do it," he said. "That’s a lot of steep territory they’ve got to get up into.”

Loomis said the shelter, which is run by the Red Cross, has been fantastic. Three meals a day. Hot showers and clean towels.

If he wanted to, he could sleep inside, except Loomis said he “doesn’t do good in crowds.”

For these fires burning in the Gorge, shelters have been vital for some. As many as 75 people have stayed at a shelter in Gresham, Oregon. Another 150 people are staying in Stevenson, Washington, most in their own tents and trailers.

“I’m still scared," said Tammy South. She held a rag over her mouth to block out the smoke.

She sat next to her husband Larry, who’s in his early 60s.

The couple lives in a trailer court in Cascade Locks. The town has been home for the last 36 years.

South said they didn’t immediately leave when the evacuation order came. But after seeing what the fire did Monday night, they changed their minds.

“We didn’t go when we should’ve," South said, "until the mountain side blew."

Once it did, it was clear to the couple they had only one choice.

Despite the heat and smoke, Tammy said, the shelter in Stevenson has been welcoming.

"They’re really good to the animals too," she said.

The Souths brought along their dogs and seven bunnies.

The animal shelter is a barn that’s used by the county fair, now staffed with volunteers. There are dozens of animals: cats and dogs, chickens, ducks, ducklings and the Souths' seven bunnies.

Big fans are on full blast, doing their best to keep things cool, but really they're just blowing around the warm air.

Betty Rush, sat in front of a cage with her cat inside.

“His name’s Midnight," Rush said. "I call him Midnight Hour.”

Years ago, Rush nearly had to have her arm amputated. Rush has also recovered from a broken leg and last year battled uterine cancer.

“God more or less told me after I had the hysterectomy that everything’s going to be OK, and it has been," Rush said. "He’s telling me right now that Cascade Locks is going to be OK. I’ve trusted him with my arm and with my leg and with this cancer scare. And so, I’m trusting in him on that too.”

Everyone at the shelter wants to go home.

But with the fires still raging, no one knows when that might be and if there will be a home to return to.

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