‘A huge difference’: Volunteers mobilise in Oregon fire aftermath
Activist groups in Oregon are collecting and distributing supplies to families displaced by deadly wildfires.
Portland, United States – Hunter Bombadier has spent the better part of the past year protesting for an end to police violence and anti-Black racism – and supporting communities hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic.
That is how the 33-year-old member of Symbiosis, a network of left-wing organisations across the United States, was ready to help when massive wildfires broke out south of Portland, Oregon, forcing tens of thousands of people to flee their homes.
“We were able to use the programming and infrastructure we already had,” Bombadier told Al Jazeera in a recent phone interview.
The group had a system in place to provide needed supplies to communities affected by COVID-19, Bombadier explained, and had created relationships with other activist organisations to coordinate their efforts.
The groups use multiple supply drop-off sites throughout the state, often in public parks or parking lots, and coordinate their efforts through a central hub staffed by volunteers. Those volunteers work every day, often late into the night, receiving and distributing donated supplies in coordination with people in areas affected by the wildfires.
“We believe in the strength of our communities,” Bombadier said.
When the wildfires escalated in Oregon in early September, Portland had seen more than 100 days of protests against police violence.
The “Antifa” movement had been blamed by US President Donald Trump for the protests and when the fires erupted, conspiracy theories spread about left-wing activists’ supposedly starting them. Local officials and the FBI debunked those theories.
In fact, the very same groups that had been vilified by Trump and other right-wing leaders during the past several months were leading relief for those affected by the fires.
Most Oregonians know someone who was directly impacted by these fires. They lost a home or had a home damaged or, in some cases, lost a family member
“[We] believe in a more just and generous world, and we are trying to live that,” said Stella Fiore, a member of a collective known as The Witches, which formed in support of the local protests.
The group is now primarily bringing supplies like N95 masks to homeless encampments around Portland.
Close to a million acres (about 404,700 hectares) have burned in multiple fires around the state, on the US west coast, which left Portland temporarily with the worst air quality in the world. Many displaced people are facing additional health risks due to the smoke caused by the blazes.
The director of the Oregon Office of Emergency Management, Andrew Phelps, said more than 3,000 people were in need of shelter support as of September 16.
“Most Oregonians know someone who was directly impacted by these fires. They lost a home or had a home damaged or, in some cases, lost a family member,” Phelps told Al Jazeera.
Phelps said the wildfires would have wide-ranging effects on every part of the state, from the health implications of the smoke to the tremendous devastation in many rural counties, where communities need support from outside organisations to get through the initial crisis.
“We rely really heavily on volunteer organisations to supply assistance … Disaster response is not solely the domain of government,” said Phelps, who noted that community groups and charitable organisations make up a sizable part of any disaster relief effort.
“Those little acts of kindness make a huge difference in how our communities will recover.”
The effects of the wildfires stretch beyond the rural suburbs of Portland, as well.
In Jackson County, a fire-ravaged area that neighbours California, an ad hoc coalition called, Rogue Valley Mutual Aid, came together; activists call their mobilisation “mutual aid”, and they said it is an alternative to charity that aims to empower communities.
“One of the most exciting things about mutual aid is that it is this incredible reminder that communities can meet each other’s needs if we just showed up and had each other’s backs,” said Allie Rosenbluth, a staff member at climate justice group Rogue Climate and a coordinator of the mutual aid work.
Rosenbluth, a resident of the rural community of Talent, Oregon was evacuated from her home. She now helps gather resources and transport them to locations where displaced people are congregating, like the car park of a local Walmart.
“We have these relationships that pre-exist [the fires] and were really critical for this current moment,” she said, adding that her years working with the community helped with the fire response.
Members of Indigenous communities in Oregon also have been some of the most affected by the wildfires. In many cases, the blazes worsened already dire situations on reservations affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and a lack of adequate water access.
Some groups are responding directly to that need, sending supplies and clean water directly to the Indigenous communities.
“A vision came to me: Our cities can support our reservations,” said Jason Umtuch, founder of Fire Igniting the Spirit and a member of Warm Springs, a reservation in northern Oregon. Umtuch is coordinating the distribution of supplies with five tribes in Oregon and Washington state.
“The actual vision has come to life,” Umtuch told Al Jazeera. “We can get it done as a people, collectively.”
Other activists have pivoted directly from their focus on anti-police brutality protests, such as Don’t Shoot PDX, a Portland-based group that was founded in 2014 to confront police killings of Black people and other police use of force.
“It went from two donation hubs and working out of my garage,” said Barak Goodman, a member of the group, who said that “the community came together in a huge way” as the fires raged.
Self-identified community medics, who help demonstrators when they are injured during protests, are also distributing N95 masks and other materials to displaced people.
While the fires are slowly being contained across Oregon, the entire state will be managing their aftermath for years to come – and activists said they would continue to help their neighbours rebuild their communities.
“We believe in mutual aid, not charity, and we are primarily working in places and with populations that we are a part of,” said Jesse, a street medic with the Rosehip Medic Collective, who asked that only their first name be used.
“Our folks doing rural response have lived or worked extensively in these areas and are there at the requests of the people who currently live there.”