PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Several grassroots efforts are uniting to support communities displaced by wildfires in Oregon and Washington, with a particular focus on helping indigenous communities that are affected.
Jason “Biggie” Umtuch of Portland began Fires Igniting the Spirit as a culturally-specific drug and alcohol recovery program for indigenous people more than a year and a half ago to help bridge the gap between conventional treatment recovery services.
Umtuch explained that his vision for the organization was bigger than merely a recovery program, however.
“It’s introducing something to a community that’s hurting for healing from not only inter-generational traumas but from daily traumas that we’re living through now,” Umtuch said. “A lot of it is displacement. A lot of it is recovery. A lot of people are relapsing because of COVID-19.”
When the coronavirus pandemic hit, Umtuch went to work trying to connect reservations with needed resources like personal protective equipment, food and water.
Umtuch explained he didn’t want his people having to go off of the reservation for basic supplies for fear of spreading the virus when they returned.
“Next thing you know, my whole tribe is wiped out. Which is starting to happen in some places. That was a real fear for the Navajo-Diné,” Umtuch explained.
Umtuch then began making supply runs to Warm Springs Reservation in north-central Oregon and slowly gained the help of other volunteers, like Barak Goodman.
“When me and Biggie met, he was making multiple trips down to Warm Springs to bring water to his people. And at that time, 60 percent of the reservation was without water,” Goodman explained. “And COVID rates were higher there than in Portland or anywhere else in the state, it was out of control.”
Goodman is now a regular volunteer with Fires Igniting the Spirit. He’s also with the group Don’t Shoot Portland, a social justice group trying to combat police brutality which was started by mayoral candidate and Black Lives Matter supporter Teressa Raiford six years ago.
A lot of mutual aid work supporting protesters during recent Black Lives Matter demonstrations had been the focus of Don’t Shoot in recent months, Goodman explained. He then organically met and befriended Umtuch.
“We were helping just put some water in his truck that were getting donated. And he was doing all the work by himself. So slowly, as that need grew, I offered my help and we started going on these runs together,” Goodman said. “And like last month we were in Pine Ridge South Dakota, driving two trucks and trailers out there to help the people.”
When the fires started, the pair had already been working with another group providing relief aid to communities, Symbiosis PDX, helping each other with supply runs, Goodman said. They provided mutual aid support to the communities of Yakima, Washington and Warm Springs.
The momentum grew more and more until Snac Block and other groups and individuals began lending their support. The group went from doing a supply run once a week to doing four per day.
“There’s been just countless volunteers,” Goodman said.
Now they are taking their aid relief to Colville, Washington and Klamath, Medford and Ashland in Oregon in addition to the previously mentioned communities.
Though they’ve received a temporary donation of a large warehouse space and a trailer to transport supplies, Goodman says they need something more permanent to make the work long term. In addition to a permanent warehouse space, they are seeking more volunteers to drive to the communities as well as a box truck.
“This work is not going to stop when the fires stop. Winter is coming quickly and we’re still in the middle of a pandemic. And a lot of these communities are going to be really cut off from accessibility when the snow comes,“ Goodman said.
The supplies are largely collected through community donation and include not only things like food and water, but “anything people need to survive,” including new camping gear (due to the pandemic, they can’t accept used items), hygiene supplies, PPE, and masks.
Umtuch hopes that the city may be interested in donating a warehouse for their operations “because there’s lots of unused abandoned buildings in inner Southeast Portland.”
“We’re living in a coming together time, that’s what we’re living in, is a coming together time. It was prophesized by my people that we’d be coming together in a great time of sickness and that’s what we’re living in,” Umtuch said.
Those interested in volunteering their time, making a donation of a box truck, or have a warehouse space they would like to offer can contact Fires Igniting the Spirit via their email or contact Jason Umtuch directly at 503-358-2673.
Anyone who is interested in dropping off donations can do so at the following locations:
Portland Center Stage at the Armory 128 NW 11th Ave. — Tues., Weds., Thurs. 10 am – 3p.m.
5 & Dime 6525 SE Foster Rd. — Business hours
Evolution Health Care & Fitness 905 SE Ankeny St. — Business hours
Symbiosis 400 SE 12th Ave. — Tues., Thurs. & 1st & 3rd Sunday