OTIS, Ore. (KOIN) — It’s been seven months since the Echo Mountain Complex Fire destroyed more than 280 homes in North Lincoln County. Grass is sprouting on the hillside and most of the charred debris is gone, but for those who lost their homes, the recovery process isn’t over yet.
Melynda and Tye Small were some of the first to jump into action after the fire, even after losing their own home. Melynda said the work took her mind off her own tragedy.
“That’s probably what drew me to do this in the first place, just distraction, but I think it’s helped, honestly. I think it’s helped a lot of people out here to just get their hands dirty and do the hard work,” she said.
Together with volunteers, the couple worked for more than 160 days and cleared 80 properties, giving their neighbors a fresh start and a place to put their new homes.
“People call me the househunter because every time a house comes in, I chase it down and I take pictures and post them online,” Melynda said. She thinks these photos help give others hope.
While Melynda enjoys tracking down all the new homes that come to town, she’s still struggling to find one of her own.
Melynda, Tye, and their four children, have been living in a hotel since they lost their home.
The Small’s home was under-insured. Melynda explained that they didn’t update their insurance over the years, even though they’d made upgrades to their home.
The family’s been trying to find a place to rent, but haven’t had any luck. On April 16, they’ll be forced to move hotels again and Melynda said the next place won’t be as nice.
“Just having to uproot the kids again, it’s just hard and stressful and unfortunate,” she said.
After months of selflessly giving their time and efforts to help others, Marc Brooks from the Cascade Relief Team, wanted to do something generous in return to help the Smalls. So, he started a fundraiser to build them a house.
“I’m blown away,” Melynda Small said. “I can’t even begin to explain how appreciative of that I am.”
Melynda and Tye recently started their own non-profit called the Small Foundation to help provide financial support to other people whose homes were uninsured or under-insured. Brooks said he hopes raising money to help build them a home will continue to empower them and their ongoing work.
On the other side of Highway 18, another family is also working to put their lives back together.
Scott Duncan and his partner Jeanie Lawless said the last seven months have been a roller coaster of highs and lows. Duncan said when the family evacuated his home on Tuesday, Sept. 8, they didn’t think it would burn down. However, when his dad saw their barn on fire while watching local news, Duncan knew there wouldn’t be much to return to.
Sure enough, the home his children grew up in was burned to the ground.
“I’ve probably suppressed a lot of the emotions about it, just talking about it kind of chokes me up a little bit,” Duncan said, “but you’ve got to keep your eyes towards the future.”
While the fires were still burning, the future got a bit brighter for Duncan and Lawless. They found out Lawless was pregnant. Their baby was born in February.
Now, leveled gravel marks the place where the Duncans’ home once sat. Scott Duncan’s teenage kids still dig around in the dirt looking for remnants of their home, which they loved very much.
“It’s like a kingdom. We loved it so much up here,” said Scottie Duncan, Scott Duncan’s son.
Scott Duncan said he hopes construction on the new house will begin in June. He and Lawless are combining their families and the new house will be big enough to fit their nine kids. Lawless said the new house will be the castle for what the kids call their kingdom.
Like Scott Duncan, Lisa and Tim Henton thought their home would survive the fire.
They had a false sense of security when the house was still standing, more than 24 hours after they’d evacuated. But the wind changed direction, and the house was destroyed.
The scorched remains of their home sat on their property for nearly seven months and were just removed on April 2. Until then, Lisa said it was really painful to visit.
“Every time we’d come up here… I said to Tim, I’m like, ‘It’s like there’s a dead body and it has not been buried yet and it’s like what do we do with this body and when is it going to be buried?’” she said.
With the debris gone, she said it feels like the funeral’s over and they can finally have closure.
Like the Smalls, the Hentons also found comfort in helping their community. Lisa and Tim are co-pastors at Coast Vineyard Church and enjoy serving others. However, it took some time for the Hentons to process their tragedy and come to terms with what had happened.
“I knew six months was when I was really wanting to step in because then people are often ready to start dealing with the emotional and physical aspects of trauma,” Lisa Henton said.
Lisa Henton does pastoral counseling and is part of the Integrative Counseling Institute in Salem. She worked with Lincoln County and the Echo Mountain Relief Fund to bring in ICI for a workshop for wildfire survivors. Since then, Lisa has been going to all the meetings for Lincoln County’s long-term recovery group and Tim has joined the board of the Echo Mountain Relief Fund.
Tim said he and his wife bought their house on a land sale contract, which made the process of navigating their insurance coverage complex, but he said it worked out and they’ll be able to break ground on a new house in the next five or six weeks. He said he’s excited for the new house and his faith helps him make sense of why things happened the way they did.
“Not, ‘oh well, God’s got a plan!’ That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about something more rooted than that that gives context and understanding that there’s more going on here than just today,” he said.
One silver lining is how this natural disaster has unified the North Lincoln County community. The Hentons said it’s created bonds that weren’t there before
“Otis and Lincoln County, North Lincoln County is actually going to be a better place as a result and it’s going to be a stronger community and that’s pretty miraculous if you ask me,” Lisa said.