Portland Volunteers Assess Conditions After the Bootleg Fire in Oregon

Northwest  |  October 4, 2021
The July 2021 Bootleg Fire reduces the small unincorporated town of Bly in Klamath County, Oregon, to ashes. Photo/Tzu Chi Portland Team

Translated by Mark Wan
Edited by Ida Eva Zielinska

The small unincorporated town of Bly in Oregon’s Klamath County was a quiet and isolated place with 161 families residing in the area and maintaining a self-contained way of life. Due to the lack of names for trails in the vicinity’s forests, the U.S. postal service couldn’t even reach many residents here.

This summer, due to the Bootleg Fire that ignited on July 6 on a parched mountainside, the community had a makeover of the worst kind, with all the houses reduced to ashes, the destruction without insurance coverage. The blaze and its aftermath also contaminated the local spring water that residents relied on, leaving no potable water. 

Toxic ash and chemicals from fire extinguishers contaminate water sources. Photo/Valerie O’Dai

Isolated But Not Alone

Oregon suffered a double dose of troubles in the summer of 2021, plagued with the spread of both the COVID-19 pandemic and forest wildfires that burned concurrently in 20 separate locations from June through August, with the most severe one of the past 120 years named the Bootleg Fire, after a creek near where it started.

As the blaze raged across Oregon, it consumed upwards of 400 thousand acres of the forest, gobbling up more than 400 buildings and sending billows of dark smoke up into the stratosphere. It even affected the air quality in the Eastern United States, the skyline of which had been “painted” with a weird orange color.

Forest tree skyscrapers burn in the Bootleg Fire. Photo/Tzu Chi Portland Team
The Bootleg Fire consumes more than 300 vehicles. Photo/許坤國

Help Is on the Way

After over a month, firefighters could barely contain the Bootleg Fire, its burn reaching deep into forested mountain areas. However, during that time, authorities assessed the damages in the Bly area and created a list of potential disaster aid beneficiaries. The Oregon branch of Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (ORVOAD) shared that list with the Tzu Chi USA Northwest Region Portland Service Center and invited volunteers to come to a Multi-Agency Resource Center in the disaster zone between August 27 and 29. 

On August 28, a team of Tzu Chi volunteers set out from the Portland Service Center, driving 300 miles in around five and a half hours to reach the fire-ravaged area to assess the situation in person. The closer they got, the bumpier the road became. So much so that one of the vehicles had to double back, having failed to climb a steep mountain trail, leaving the other two vehicles to thrash on up the mountains to reach their destination, passing through a lifeless stretch of scorched earth.

What we saw upon entering the site of the hardest-hit was a swath of doom and gloom in the wake of forest fire destruction. And it was impossible to do damage assessment and appraisal one house at a time due to the remote nature of the area and dangerous terrain.

Volunteers trudge to the remote locale for disaster appraisal. Photo/Tzu Chi Portland Team

In this erstwhile Xanadu-like, quiet place, the inhabitants are mostly the descendants of pioneers who still long for a life in harmony with Nature and self-sufficiency, so they relied on solar panels for power and water from wells. Thus, having paperwork affiliated with civilization, such as ID cards or utility bills, was not always applicable to the people who lived here. After all, the postal service doesn’t have access to the area for lack of road names in the forest and only lot numbers for reference. Unfortunately, this simple way of life has become an obstacle inhibiting residents’ ability to apply for disaster aid.

After the fire, disaster survivors now live in even more rustic conditions. Photo/Tzu Chi Portland Team

Buying Fire Insurance Had Not Been an Option

In the wake of the Bootleg Fire, survivors in the Bly area returned to where their homes used to be but, with houses burned to the ground, they now had to be content with living in rustic campers nearby. Gage Clark, one resident, stood in front of where once was the house he spent more than six years building and his solar power device. The only vestige of those possessions left was charred debris and a few twisted pieces of metal in the wreckage. Without fire insurance, Gage has no means to rebuild. 

Many asked me why we didn’t purchase fire insurance. It’s not that we didn’t want to buy. Instead, it’s that no one would sell policies to us for lack of access by fire trucks due to the inaccessibility of the whole area sticking so far out.

Gage Clark says that all his years of hard work have come to naught because of the fire. Photo/Tzu Chi Portland Team

What held them back never stopped there since these fire survivors now can’t apply for government subsidies. “They have no addresses, and thus there is no official confirmation on where exactly they live.” Said Valerie O’Dai, Executive Director of Relief Angels, a small disaster relief non-profit eager to help those who can’t help themselves. She continued, explaining, “such being the case, it’s next to impossible to accurately make an appraisal of the number of damaged estates and personal effects. Then the result is that nobody can get help from the county or state government.” 

The situation is dire, indeed. On the mountain today, there is no urgent assistance available, no power, and also no water for lack of a water tower and tap water pipe …

The whole region gets its water from collected spring water, which is now totally contaminated by the wildfire. They can’t use water as they did before, so they have to drive down the mountain to purchase water in the city. However, due to this year’s drought, the urban water supply is very low, thus not enough for city folks, much less for inhabitants in the disaster area.

After their disaster assessment and appraisal of emergency needs, Tzu Chi volunteers are starting to apply for water supply subsidies on behalf of Bootleg Fire survivors, which is the most urgent agenda for now. And they are also preparing cash cards for distribution to help all 161 families impacted by this wildfire catastrophe.

Please consider adding your love and care to support Tzu Chi USA’s wildfire relief activities in California; So many people depend on our help, and we pay close attention so that no one is left behind on the road to full recovery.

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