For Oregon’s Displaced, Wildfires are Just the Beginning

The nonprofit Reach Out WorldWide received and distributed Direct Relief supplies to camps and sites around Oregon, but recovery will be a long process, the Reach Out WorldWide COO said.



Direct Relief supplies are loaded onto a plane for transport to Oregon on September 19, 2020. (Lara Cooper/Direct Relief)
Direct Relief supplies are loaded onto a plane for transport to Oregon on September 19, 2020. (Lara Cooper/Direct Relief)

As the spate of wildfires in Oregon begins to quiet – and the world’s eyes turn elsewhere – it’s just the beginning for thousands of people displaced from their homes.

Fires are “especially difficult just by nature of the displacement,” said Felicia Walker, chief operating officer at the nonprofit Reach Out WorldWide (ROWW). In many cases, “when these people are coming home, they have literally nothing to come home to.”

Walker knows what she’s talking about. Since its founding in 2010 by firefighters and paramedics, including the late actor Paul Walker, ROWW has responded to disasters all over the world – whether it’s an earthquake in Haiti or a typhoon in Nepal – and often with Direct Relief. 

“Many of them are not going to know their circumstances for up to six months down the road,” such as whether or not they have jobs, Walker said, describing those displaced by the wildfires that have swept the West Coast in recent weeks. “From top to bottom, there’s little communities everywhere that have been completely destroyed.

ROWW plans to identify a couple of large-scale recovery projects in the coming months, but for the time being, Walker said, what’s most needed are hygiene and first aid supplies, materials for firefighters still on the frontlines, masks, and personal items.

Over the weekend, Direct Relief, via a fleet of volunteer pilots, provided ROWW with 100,000 KN95 masks, wildfire kits filled with critical medications and supplies, tents donated by Barebones, and hygiene items donated by Vaseline, among others.

The supplies were distributed to emergency staging sites and camps up and down the Interstate-5 in Oregon, to aid both firefighters on the frontlines and people displaced by the blazes.

Volunteer coordinator Joshwa Martin, on the ground in Oregon, spoke to Direct Relief while on his way to survey a new potential evacuation center. (A previous one had just closed down.)

The evacuation center Martin described, most recently set up at a local high school, allowed evacuees to receive medical and mental health care along with needed supplies, chosen for them with the help of a “personal shopper.” Those with special needs could receive help from an occupational therapist.

For Martin, a managing director at an apparel company, the volunteer work he’s doing is about much more than trying to meet basic needs. “They’ve been assigned the role of evacuee right now….but they’re not an evacuee. They’re a soul,” he said. “We’re just trying to recognize the human.”

For ROWW, which is based in California and has volunteers in Oregon, devastating wildfires are nothing new. Walker described developing a “community toolshare” for people in Butte County rebuilding their homes after the catastrophic Camp Fire in 2018, which killed 85 people and destroyed thousands of residences.

But while they may not be new, they are personal.

“We pretty much go anywhere” when help is required, Walker said. However, when it comes to the wildfires, “this is right in our backyard.”

As a California-based nonprofit disaster relief and medical assistance organization, Direct Relief responds each year to wildfires and other emergencies in both its home state and throughout the U.S. and has done so for decades. So far this wildfire season, Direct Relief has supported more than 30 health centers, public emergency response offices, and county health departments across California, Oregon, and Washington with more than 70 deliveries of protective gear, respiratory aids, ophthalmic products, tetanus vaccines, and other requested medicines and supplies.

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