Home for the holidays: Riverside Fire survivors ready for new house

Wildfires

The Thompsons lost everything in the Riverside Fire, but this holiday season marks a fresh start

ESTACADA, Ore. (KOIN) – Gary and Robin Thompson can’t stop smiling as they sit around the dining table of their new home. Even the soggy mud that surrounds it outside isn’t dampening their spirits. 

After losing all their possessions in the 2020 Riverside Fire, the couple is elated to say they’ll finally be home for the holidays. 

“We had kind of given up,” Gary said. “We had planned on living in an RV for years.” 

He and Robin said the Riverside Fire wasn’t the first time they’d evacuated. They’d fled their home twice before that and everything was fine. They thought everything would be OK, like it had been in the past, but this time was different. 

The Thompsons lost everything. Their home, their outbuildings and all of their possessions were destroyed. They made it out with their cats and a change of clothes. 

“It was a lifetime of everything you own,” Gary said. “It looked bad. It smelled bad, but we could have taken an hour, you know, to at least pack up a few tools and things.”  

The Thompsons first went to stay with their daughter and her family in Portland, but eventually purchased an RV. They’ve been living in it for months and were prepared to stay in it for years. Without homeowners insurance and with their only income being Gary’s Social Security, the Thompsons didn’t know when they could purchase a new home. 

That’s when Pat Olsen stepped in. 

Olsen is the chair of the Clackamas County Long Term Recovery Group, which launched in the spring of 2021 to help provide ongoing support for wildfire survivors. 

Olsen said the ashes from the fire were still warm when he met the Thompsons. He was volunteering with a church group to help clean up damaged properties and could see that they needed help. 

“From the moment I met the Thompson’s to now, I am absolutely moved to tears getting an opportunity to sit in the house that wasn’t here two months and three weeks ago,” he said. “Words can’t really express what that’s like.” 

As of Dec. 16, 2021, construction was mostly completed on the Thomspon’s home. It just needed one more railing installed. (KOIN)

While the Clackamas County Long Term Recovery Group was the driving force behind rebuilding the Thompsons’ home, Olsen said it wouldn’t have been possible without significant donations. 

The group received a $780,000 donation from Oregon Housing and Community Services, $10,000 from Portland General Electric, $55,000 from the Salvation Army, $40,000 from United Way, and several other donations worth tens of thousands of dollars. 

Olsen also said businesses such as Goliath Construction, Gresham Electric, Level Up Construction, Saint Helens Plumbing, and E&Z Excavating have donated nearly 4,000 hours of skilled labor. 

“It would take several minutes for me to roll through the list of all of the businesses and community that is coming together around this work,” Olsen said. 

Now, all that work is paying off as the Thompsons prepare to move into their new home. They hope their inspection will be done within the next two weeks and after moving more furniture in, they should be prepared to officially move in before the end of the holiday season. 

Robin said the reality of the situation started setting in when she was picking out paint for inside the home. She said she’s ready for a fresh start and to get out of the RV. 

“It’s cramped when you’re living on top of each other and I don’t care how much you love somebody, eventually you start chewing nails,” she said. 

For the Clackamas County Long Term Recovery Group, the work doesn’t end once the Thompsons’ home is finished. They have two other homes in progress and continue to help wildfire survivors in a variety of ways. While visiting the Thompsons Thursday, Olson learned about a neighbor up the road who is still living in a trailer with only a generator for power and no access to water. He said he plans to try to get in touch with that person this week. 

Olsen wants to do even more outreach work in 2022. He hopes to build more transitional housing for wildfire survivors and is also looking at ways to help human trafficking victims. 

“It is not a matter of if we have a disaster, it’s when. And so, it is really incumbent upon us as a community to prepare for the next disaster,” he said. 

Olsen said anyone who still needs assistance after the 2020 riverside fire should visit ClackCares.org and connect with them. The website also has information where people can donate or volunteer to help. 

The Thompsons are raising money to cover the cost of other expenses. Anyone interested in assisting them can make a donation to their GoFundMe page.

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