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Wildfires and Veterans

September 4, 2013

Oregon – Friday, August 23

The winds were blowing away from town today, so there was no wildfire smoke like there had been yesterday (and there hadn’t been any smoke when I got to town in the late evening). I had been looking into donation opportunities, and I discovered that the Oregon Veterans Home was right here in The Dalles, so that was going to be my donation-of-the-day. As I set off to find the home on the other side of town, I passed a Red Cross sign that said “Disaster Relief”. I figured it was for the people who had to evacuate from their homes, and I stopped in to see if that could possibly be a wildfire sort of donation. The people there told me they were actually pretty well stocked and set up to help evacuees if necessary, but suggested I visit the firefighter base camp because they knew that some donations up there would be helpful. They gave me directions to the local high school, which was where the US Forestry Service had set up base camp, and it was quite a sight to see. It looked like a tent city – dozens and dozens of tents set up next to the football field, a mess tent and a kitchen trailer, other trailers, dozens of cases of water and soda stacked up, fire trucks and equipment, and people. I talked with someone by one of the big trailers in the center of the area, and asked what kinds of things were needed. There was plenty of food and water for the firefighters of course, but they seemed to be short on things like shampoo, soap, toothbrushes, toothpaste, and socks. So I decided to go to the dollar store and got lots of bottles of shampoo and bars of soap, some liquid hand soap, toothbrushes and toothpaste, and individual packages of hand wipes that I thought maybe they could stick in their pockets. I took the bags back to the base camp, and there was a table for donations from the public, which currently didn’t have anything on it. One of the firefighters helped me carry all the bags over to the table, and then he took a bar of soap and a bottle of shampoo. At first I just set the bags on the table and spread them out a bit, and was walking away, and all of a sudden quite a few other firefighters came over to the table to start looking through the bags. Most were walking away with shampoo and bar soap. I walked back to the table and took the rest of the items out of the bags so they could see what was there, and more firefighters came over. I asked them how things were going, but they didn’t know yet because they were just getting up. Since the fire is battled around the clock, the night crew has to try to sleep during the day, and it was hot, and all I could think of was trying to sleep in a stuffy hot tent under a blazing sun. I imagine they’re so exhausted when they get down from the fire that they sleep anyway. There were a few people bustling around the mess tent and kitchen getting ready for another meal. By the time I headed back to the van, the only thing left on the table was a couple bottles of liquid soap, and I wished I had just bought bar soap instead. The stuff vanished so quickly that it made me want to go back for more, but I was pretty sure other people bring things too. And during a later walk in town, I actually saw flyers on store windows asking people to help the firefighters with toiletry items. I’m glad I didn’t see those lists first, or I would have just put my donations in their collection boxes instead of visiting the base itself! It was really interesting to get a little taste of all the activity going on at a wildfire base camp. There were also several corners in town that had fire updates and maps, about who should be out of their homes now, who should be packing up and getting ready to leave, and who should be on alert.

And then I finally resumed my interrupted quest to find the Veteran’s Home. It was located outside of town, up high on the side of a mountain where they had a good view of the river and the dam, and the surrounding mountains. This was the first time I could see the smoke from the wildfire a few ridges over. I went in and made my donation, and they told me I could specify where the donation went, so it will help with a recreational outing. I took Tula our for a walk to look at all the smoke in the distance. Even though the fire was only 10-12 miles away from town, people were very matter-of-fact about it – I would have thought it would be really scary to be so close to one – and although the fires consume a lot of land, it’s not like they rage along at 100 miles an hour, and maybe that’s why the people aren’t as nervous about it as I would have expected. If someone had told me at the start of my journey that I would spend time in a town that close to a major wildfire, I wouldn’t have thought that would be possible, because I imagined the whole town would have been evacuated. It makes me curious how close the fires get before people are ordered to evacuate. Then I drove back down the mountain, and we found the river walk, and covered a couple miles along that. I noticed several helicopters flying back and forth with something that looked like a big orange ball dangling from a cable, and it would hover out of sight by the river (filling the “ball” with water??) and then fly back toward the fire. I put Tula back in the van and walked a couple more miles throughout the town and a couple neighborhoods. There were numerous signs around town thanking the firefighters for their hard work. Somewhere along the ay I passed a little park that had a sign over the entrance that said “End of the Oregon Trail.” I went in the park but the only thing I saw was a large boulder commemorating the spot. I imagine at this point, settlers started peeling off in different areas of Oregon to settle into their new lives.

I was going to stay in The Dalles again tonight because I already knew what I was going to do for my donation in the morning, so I went back into town where Tula and I did our final mile and a half of walking, then I got some Chinese take-out food and headed back to the motel for an evening of computer work and other trip details.

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