Oregon’s senators met Saturday with evacuees from the Holiday Farm Fire, pledging after hearing their stories that the state’s rural communities won’t be forgotten.
U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley met with some of the fire’s victims at the Lane County Events Center, which is serving as a resource center for evacuees. The senators said communications and housing were among the most common concerns they heard.
“Blue River, Nimrod and Rainbow and Vida, they’ve all just been clobbered,” Wyden said. “There’s so much to do to try to restore a semblance of what they had.”
The Holiday Farm Fire is still burning nearly three weeks after it began, though evacuation notices for all areas affected by the fire have been lifted. Many areas were badly damaged by the fire, and communities such as Blue River were destroyed.
The Oregon Department of Forestry reported the Holiday Farm Fire destroyed at least 431 homes and 24 commercial buildings. More than 5,000 people live in the census county division that includes Vida, Blue River, Rainbow and other affected areas.
“These are rural communities that feel that nobody pays attention to them. So the last thing I said is, ‘Folks, you can write it down — we will be back,'” Wyden said.
Wyden, Merkley and other Western Democrats on Friday sent a letter to President Donald Trump asking for the federal government to increase the number of firefighters responding to many still-burning fires; have FEMA “break down existing barriers” for relief assistance, especially in rural communities; and be willing to adjust states’ cost-sharing agreements.
“These wildfires are wreaking havoc on a scale that is becoming all too common. We need to work together to fight these fires now, support communities in the aftermath, and later work to prevent future devastation,” the letter reads.
Merkley said Saturday one of the problems they heard about was the failure in some cases of emergency alert systems to reach residents under threat from the fire. He said the system is “inadequate” and left many without warning or information on where to go.
“We heard a lot of powerful stories of people who stayed, knocked on their neighbors’ doors, crawled through a neighbor’s window to get a neighbor out, made it through a road at a last minute to wake people up and get them out,” Merkley said.
Markley said evacuees praised the fire and police personnel who assisted them, but said there is a great deal of work ahead for residents, utilities and local governments.
“We’ve worked to get the emergency declaration to open the doors. But once you open the doors, you have to pull the resources through. This doesn’t happen quickly or easily, but this is what we’re immersed in every single day now,” Merkley said. “I am absolutely determined that people will be able to rebuild in these communities.”