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Wildfires around Oregon have prompted hundreds of thousands of residents to evacuate from their homes and travel to safer locations.

Tent City

Tents set up at the Columbia County Fairgrounds for people forced to evacuate their homes from regional wildfires. A Wildfire Relief Fund has also been established.

The Columbia County Fairgrounds, located at 58892 Saulser Rd. in St. Helens, which had been serving as a shelter for farm animals, now serves as one of those locations for people.

Glenda Irwin and her family, including husband, son, two dogs, and farm animals, were some of those people. However, Irwin said, the Columbia County Fairgrounds is the second location they had to evacuate to. At first, the family headed to Canby, before it, too, was evacuated.

It was around 3:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 8 that Irwin, from Molalla, Oregon knew she and her family, along with their farm animals, had to evacuate their home. Irwin got the evacuation signal on her phone, similar to how Amber Alerts are sent.

“We looked at it and it said Level 3, go now,” Irwin said.

There are three different levels for those facing evacuation in Oregon. Level 1 means residents should “be ready” for a potential evacuation, monitor local media for further information and start to gather personal items. Level 2 means residents should “be set” to evacuate and can choose to voluntarily evacuate at this point. Level 3 means residents must leave immediately and must not delay evacuating in order to gather personal items or protect their home.

Irwin said it was no time at all before they went from Level 1 to Level 3. Irwin said her husband had messaged her at work to say that they were at Level 1 and thought they were still at Level 1 when she got home.

“I have pictures on my phone of what it looked like going towards my house and the sky was just so red. It was bad,” Irwin said.

The family had very little time to gather personal belongings. Irwin said they were throwing things haphazardly into the car, like the family’s file cabinet and clothes in a laundry basket. This all happened in 10 minutes, Irwin said.

With some help from Cowgirl 911, an Oregon animal evacuation and assistance group, Irwin was able to get her horses and sheep out of danger and bring them with her to Canby. Unfortunately, she had to leave some chickens and turkeys behind. Irwin still has no idea what has happened to them, or her house.

“We’re still looking at our phones, trying to see what’s up there. We have friends that go up there every now and then,” Irwin said, but they haven’t heard from those friends in a while.

When the city of Canby went up to Level 2, Irwin was able to call someone to help her transport her farm animals to the Columbia County Fairgrounds the night of Thursday, Sept. 10. She and her family, three pet dogs and farm animals have been at the fairgrounds for a full day.

Irwin said the whole incident has been hard on her.

“I’m emotional,” she said. “I broke down a few times.”

However, she said the help she has gotten from the community so far has been a big help.

“Everybody around here has been helping. This community is great,” Irwin said.

That help has come in the form of many donations, both cash and material, which had filled the Columbia County Fairgrounds Pavilion the day of Friday, Sept. 11. From non-perishable food, to water bottles, to blankets, to pillows, to sleeping bags, to diapers, to clothing, to kids’ toys, nearly everything was available to help those in need.

Taylor Fitzgerald, Special Event Coordinator for the Columbia County Fairgrounds, is one of the people coordinating the donations. Fitzgerald said donations started coming in Tuesday night, Sept. 8.

“We got the okay to go ahead and open up our fairgrounds. And within 24 hours we were getting lots of animals, and people donating, and we've got thousands of dollars from people willing to donate, to help out the situation and lots and lots of clothes and food,” Fitzgerald said.

In order to get the word out about needing donations, Fitzgerald said the fairgrounds posted on social media, such as on the Facebook page, Concerned Citizens of Columbia County (4C’s), as well as the “buy, sell, trade” pages and the county website. There was a lot of word-of-mouth as well, Fitzgerald said.

Needed donations were “anything and everything,” according to Fitzgerald. She said she asked for anything that someone might need if they had had to evacuate and didn’t have anything.

Donors have mostly been private citizens, according to Fitzgerald. Their donations have been able to help out the approximately 10 families that are now stationed at the fairgrounds, Fitzgerald said.

If there is a family needing to evacuate, Fitzgerald said they don’t need to do anything more than head straight to the Columbia County Fairgrounds.

“Just show up,” she said. “We’ll take you.”

Follow developments here online with in-depth reports in the Friday print editions of The Chief.

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