MOLALLA, Ore. (KOIN) — Molalla is a city of contradictions after almost a week spent dealing with historic wildfires and the chaos following their destructive path. The crisis has brought out the best in people, as folks pitch in wherever they can to help neighbors or even complete strangers. But it has also put people on edge, making them suspicious and judgmental of anyone perceived as an outsider.
KOIN 6 News wandered around the city Saturday morning. Here’s what we found.
“Business as usual” at the fire station
Shortly before noon, a lone truck sat outside the Molalla Fire Department as a firefighter filled it with water. Lieutenant Mike Penunuri said Saturday operations were “business as usual,” with the department dedicated to running 911 calls, fire alarms, and anything else they would worry about under normal, non-wildfire circumstances.
Penunuri is optimistic about the damp, chilly weather conditions.
“The humidity helps us immensely with the fire behavior,” he said. “The fog is kind of a double-edged sword. If the fog would lift, we’d be able to fly. But if the fog lifts, then the inversion lifts and the fire behavior becomes more active…. It’s a good thing and a bad thing for us.”
Molalla has been under Level 3 (Go now) evacuation orders for a couple days now, but not everyone left, which is slightly concerning to Penunuri.
“We’ve had a handful of people that just absolutely refuse to leave,” he said. “You can’t force them out of their house. You can explain to the best of your ability what could happen, but if they don’t want to leave, they don’t want to leave.”
Having too many people on the roads could also hinder firefighting efforts, he said, so officials would really like the town to stay as empty as possible until evacuation orders are lifted… whenever that may be.
Community support for firefighters, evacuees
Most shops were shuttered in downtown Molalla, with the exception of Bentley Feed Store, where volunteers were streaming in and out carrying sleeping bags, hoses, socks and more supplies for firefighters.
The wildfires and subsequent evacuation orders were like déjà vu for the Bentley family, who just moved back into their North Molalla Avenue location last month after a deadly fire in February 2019 badly damaged the building.
“We were just afraid and we just wanted to help,” owner Ashley Bentley said.
They posted a list of items firefighters need (plus info on a local church raising money for those who have lost their homes) on their Facebook page. They were originally collecting donations for the Aurora Fire District (which is hosting the evacuated Colton Fire District), but by Saturday evening Aurora’s fire chief announced their needs had all been met.
Good Samaritans “working our butts off” to rescue livestock
Private citizens with livestock trailers were staged and ready to go in an otherwise empty parking lot in front of Ace Hardware.
Katherine McIntosh came all the way from Yacolt, Washington.
“I heard they needed help and my neck of the woods is fine,” McIntosh said. “If our place was up in flames we’d hope that somebody would help us.”
McIntosh, along with Portland-area friend Tiffany Santinelli, have been in Clackamas County all week, helping people haul horses, sheep, donkeys, ducks, llamas and more to safety.
“We’ve been working our butts off,” Santinelli said. “My wife and I have been out there every day.”
The volunteers mostly use word of mouth and social media to find where they’re needed. It’s all on their own dime, though McIntosh said some people have been donating fuel cards and other items.
“We have the resources and us country people all stick together,” Santinelli said, adding that rescuing animals has been the saddest, yet most rewarding things she’s ever done.
Facebook groups McIntosh uses for coordinating livestock transportation: Cowboy 911, Cowgirl 911, and PNW Animal Natural Disaster/Fire Evacuation Resource Group.
Despite all the camaraderie and compassion, KOIN 6 News also found people who were on high alert and deeply suspicious of outsiders. Many in the small city and surrounding countryside believe the rumors that some – if not all – of the wildfires are the result of arson, rumors law enforcement officials have been fighting to dispel.
“These people need to quit starting these frickin fires. It’s all 100% man-made,” Santinelli said, though she speculates they’re more likely connected to careless actions like campfires than outright malice.
KOIN 6 News ran into two journalists from Sweden, in Oregon to cover the wildfires. They said they originally had taped signs reading “press” on the windows of their black Infinity SUV (already a conspicuous vehicle in these parts). Local authorities advised they remove the signs ASAP, since residents have been on the lookout for “suspicious” vehicles, including those marked “press,” they said.
And near the RSG Forest Products lumber mill near Highway 213 and Liberal Way, KOIN’s reporter had just pulled over to take video of the charred logs and barren landscape when a radio announced “someone got out of the vehicle … and started taking pictures.” An employee said they weren’t allowing anyone on the property because it was still an active fire zone. They also said “looters are a problem.”