Portlanders worry about wildfires as emergency shelters fill

By Kristian Foden-Vencil (OPB)
Sept. 11, 2020 10:32 p.m.

Lonnie and Linda Johnson usually live in an apartment complex in Oregon City. But Friday they were bunking on two cots, pushed together at the massive Oregon Convention Center in Portland.

“We’ve been praying to God and trying not to freak out,” said Linda.


Their apartment is under a Level 2 ‘be prepared to leave’ evacuation advisory in Clackamas County. But since they both use motorized chairs to get around and they don’t drive, their complex manager brought them to the convention center.

“We’ve been inhaling the smoke which is not something you really want to do, you really don’t,” said Linda.

They brought two changes of clothes, their medications and their personal items which are all stored under their cots. The Red Cross has provided a TV, food and a way to check and see where the fires are.

Oregon City residents, Lonnie and Linda Johnson, have moved out of their apartment complex because of the wildfires.

Oregon City residents, Lonnie and Linda Johnson, have moved out of their apartment complex because of the wildfires.

Kristian Foden-Vencil

As smoke blankets the Portland area, residents worry that the wildfires that have ravaged Clackamas and Washington counties are headed in their direction.

So far, about 65 people have moved into the convention center. Jennifer Masotja with Multnomah County said they’ve laid out 300 cots, but hundreds more can be added if necessary, “We have a lot of capacity, so if we were to need to expand this operation to include a Multnomah County evacuation, or anyone else, we have plenty of capacity to do that at this facility as well as multiple other facilities across the county.”

So far, evacuees are mainly coming from Clackamas County, where a shelter had to shut down because it was within the evacuation area.


But the evacuations, smoke and wildfire alerts have Portland residents worried, especially those living right next to evacuation advisory areas.

The director of Emergency Management at Multnomah County Chris Voss, said he’s working closely with fire departments and the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office to determine where evacuation areas are located. But he said, the lines have to be drawn somewhere.

“Where that line is ended is sometimes hard for folks. They’re like: ‘Hey, how is that side of the street on the one side in the green and I’m not in the green?’” said Voss.

While the sheriff’s office makes the final decision on evacuations, Voss said there are things people can do to help, “We want people to stay off the roads if they can," he said.

"If we do need to move people or we do need to move emergency vehicles, then having those roads free and available so they can move quickly and effectively, that allows our response to improve even more.”

Voss said it’s also a good time for people to think about their yards and fire prevention. For example, they should keep bushes from being too close to their homes and consider which trees are the most fire resistant. “A lot of those mitigation strategies are typically employed in rural areas. But some of them are actually good practices.”

Three hundred beds have been laid out at the Oregon Convention Center to house those evacuated from wildfires.

Three hundred beds have been laid out at the Oregon Convention Center to house those evacuated from wildfires.

Kristian Foden-Vencil

But Voss said Portland residents should not worry unduly. Urban areas have more resources and quicker response times. One of the best things residents can do, is sign up for public alerts and stay informed.

“I think we’re seeing a bit of climate change in action. And we need to sort of change with that too,” said Voss.

Back at the Oregon Convention Center, Linda and Lonnie Johnson are hunkering down for the long-term, “We’re really just going to have to wait and see," said Linda. "We’ve been praying. A lot.”

The Red Cross said the convention center will remain open as long as the need lasts.


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