MEDFORD, Ore. – The evacuees of the deadly and destructive Almeda Fire have been filing into the Jackson County Expo for nearly a week, in many cases with nothing more than the clothes on their back.
Among the staff they meet at the Expo is Caryn Wheeler, an assistant professor of practice with the Oregon State University Extension Service. Wheeler, who’s based at the Southern Oregon Research and Extension Center in Center Point, was tabbed by the county to staff the Estación de Conexiónes-Connection Station.
The station has been set up to provide social services such as assistance with signing up for the Oregon Health Plan, Veteran’s Affairs, Jackson County Assessor’s office tax proration coordination, Oregon Department of Human Services food and housing assistance, mental and emotional support, Latinx outreach and support groups, and senior services.
Wheeler, a faculty member in the Family and Community Health Program (FCH) in OSU’s College of Public health and Human Sciences, said she’s been “running nonstop” since the morning of Sept. 12. Four days earlier, the Almeda Fire forced thousands of people to evacuate with little notice, rapidly burning through residential areas, and decimating the small towns of Talent and Phoenix.
Four people have been killed in the fire and an estimated 2,800 homes and 100 commercial buildings have been damaged or destroyed. Both of those numbers are increasing by the day. In response, the Jackson County Emergency Operations Center established an emergency evacuation operation at the Expo.
“We know there are going to be gaps in terms of long-term stabilization,” Wheeler said. “Our goal is help people navigate this catastrophe. My responsibility was to stand up all of these services as quickly as possible and get this information into the hands of the people who need them.”
The OSU Extension Service has a defined role in federal, state and local emergency plans, said Lynette Black, associate professor in OSU’s College of Public Health and Human Sciences and Extension 4-H Youth development faculty in Wasco County.
“Extension is an essential partner in coordinating response efforts to disasters and emergencies,” said Black, who serves as Extension’s state disaster preparedness and recovery specialist and Extension’s liaison to the Extension Disaster Education Network (EDEN).
EDEN is a consortium of land-grant universities that focuses on the Extension Service’s role and participation in disaster preparedness, mitigation, response, and recovery programs.
Black has authored or co-authored the following Extension disaster preparedness publications: No Power? No Problem: Tips to Help You Thrive in the Face of Disaster, Survival Basics: Water, and Cascadia Action Steps: It’s Time to Get Ready. Her latest publication, Survival Basics: Stress Less, focuses on mental well-being.
Black is one of several OSU Extension professionals across the state who regularly attend county emergency operations meetings or are called upon to lead ad hoc response efforts. Some examples include:
- On May 27-28, at 18 distribution sites across the state, Extension employees worked side by side with the Oregon Army National Guard and Oregon Department of Agriculture to sort, load and hand out personal protective equipment earmarked for agricultural producers and farmworkers to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Some counties participated in a second distribution this week and are scheduled to participate in a third distribution next week.
- In Wasco County, Extension was tapped to craft a plan to ensure the safety of migrant farmworkers and residents during the annual cherry harvest.
- Robin Maille, a faculty member in the FCH Program in the College of Public Health and Human Sciences, was charged by the Union County Emergency Preparedness Coalition to coordinating an effort to provide 1,000 face coverings for La Grande Schools as they opened this fall.
- John Punches, the OSU Extension Forester for Union, Umatilla and Wallow counties, has been involved in search-and-rescue efforts for 30 years. His service includes over 20 years as the coordinator of the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office Mountain Rescue team and 10 years as a member of Eugene Mountain Rescue team.
- Leah Sundquist, Clackamas County local liaison, has a background in emergency management and coordinates with the Multnomah, Clackamas and Washington counties’ operations centers, and analyzes their reports. She conducts emergency management training for Extension staff in all three counties.
- OSU Extension is assisting with livestock rescue efforts as thousands of Oregonians flee wildfires.
Ruth Dixon, 4-H educational program assistant in Curry County, used her experience during the Chetco Bar Fire in 2017 to learn more about Extension’s role in disaster response. She’s now a state delegate to EDEN, director of the Gold Beach CERT (Community Emergency Response Team), and an instructor/leader for My PI Oregon (My Youth Preparedness Initiative).
Dixon recently used that knowledge and experience to quickly organize an effort to prepare the livestock barns at the Event Center at Gold Beach in the event that animals that needed to be evacuated from the fires in southern Oregon.
“I’d like to thank the 4-H volunteers and members for their help with setting up and creating the evacuation center,’ Dixon said. “Being proactive about something without knowing if anything will actually happen is something that 4-H is great at.”
Last week, Dixon was a resource for Lindsay Davis, the office manager for the Extension office in Clatsop County, who contacted her before the office organized a volunteer effort to evacuate animals in the fires in northwest Oregon.
“In a crisis situation like this, you don’t reinvent the wheel,” Davis said. “Ruth and her team did an amazing job organizing animal evacuation efforts during the Chetco Bar Fire. She shared all of her knowledge and resources with me so we could provide an immediate response to our own community without delay.”
Davis also was on the phone frequently with Sundquist, who was under a Level 2 “be ready” evacuation order at her home in Oregon City.
“Despite having her car packed and a garden hose in her hand spraying down her home, Leah and I were on the phone all hours of the day and night as she coordinated with Clackamas Emergency Management on the evacuation of livestock to the Clackamas County Fairgrounds. She has a true heart of service and each time I called she said, ‘I’m here, what can I do to help?’”