California fire survivors helping Oregon fire survivors

The hope is that as fire survivors help each other they will create a network to help future fire survivors.

GATES, Oregon — Wildfire recovery continues to happen across Oregon. While the road is a long one, communities ravaged by fire are banding together to help each other.

On Tuesday, a group of people toured burned areas in the Santiam Canyon. The people in the group came from all walks of life, from California to Oregon.

But the one thing that drew them to the Santiam Canyon is something they all have in common.

“In some way, everyone in this group is fire-affected,” said Deana Freres, co-founder of the Santiam Canyon Wildfire Relief Fund.

Freres helped organize the meeting. The group was made up of nonprofits, community members, as well as representatives from state and federal agencies. Jennifer Gray Thompson, with the California nonprofit, After the Fire, was one of the people in the group.

“I’m the co-founder of an organization called After the Fire. What we do essentially is we help communities navigate wildfires,” said Gray Thompson

The organization is currently working in several fire-affected areas in California and Oregon. Gray Thompson said After the Fire has been to Jackson County in Southern Oregon to help as well. The nonprofit started after northern California’s North Bay fires in 2017 and the people who are part of the organization have either lost their homes to fire or were impacted in some way.

“We lost 6,000 homes the first night, 9,000 structures overall across four counties,” Gray Thompson said.

The intent of the tour and meeting was to share best practices, make connections, brainstorm ways to speed recovery and think about recovery over the long term as well. Gray Thompson said the aim is to streamline help and support during such large disasters and to give communities a helping hand when dealing with a complicated federal system.

“We made a lot of mistakes and we did a lot of things right,” said Gray Thompson.

Gray Thompson said for future fires, one idea is for groups of people in a community to designate a point person who will be tasked with attending every meeting and disseminating information. If there are issues at any point in the process, they can approach their liaison who can inform decisions makers and organizations that are trying to help.

“It’s a way to filter information through a designated person that the community chooses to have a group of people and have like 40 people who represent 2,000 people, who attend meetings every single week or every other week, and they can also filter information to the public sector and leaders about what’s working, what’s not working,” Gray Thompson said.

Gray Thompson also suggested fire-affected communities strengthen relationships with Indigenous people and work together to rebalance and manage forests to prevent wildfires from happening or breaking out again.

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“They’re making a really generous effort to help us learn from them and also learn from our experience here in the Santiam Canyon so that perhaps we can all glean from each other and be better prepared and more equipped to respond to wildfire in our area,” Freres said.

Those who have lived through destructive fires are coming together like only they can.

“You can’t learn it and you can’t teach it,” said Gray Thompson. “It’s a visceral changing of who you are in the world.”

“I hope that we can, for the canyon, take away all the best knowledge from the experience that the crew from California is bringing up. The more we are in person and conversing with the nonprofits, with the state, with the response here on the ground, the better equipped we are to really support the survivors’ recovery efforts,” Freres said.

The hope is that as fire survivors help each other they will create a network to help future fire survivors.

“If we can look into resiliency efforts so places don’t burn down, if we all lean all the way in and do our part, we can get through to the other side but we’re only going to be able to do that if we do it together in meetings like this today. That’s the way forward,” Gray Thompson said.

At this point, in the Santiam Canyon, people are at different stages of recovery. Some people have almost entirely rebuilt their homes, while others still have yet to figure out how to remove debris and burned trees from their property.

Freres said the Santiam Canyon Wildfire Relief Fund has been trying to help. As of last week, it had received over $3.7 million. To date, Freres said it has distributed just under $2 million in individual grants.

“I think the important thing is for everyone to remember that this is still a very active, ongoing high-needs recovery effort,” said Freres.

The tour ended at Santiam Hospital with a roundtable involving a discussion of ideas and how to move forward.