Serving firefighters battling wildfires in Umpqua

LCO, September 2023

Wildfire season in the Pacific Northwest often lasts from May until October. This year, a wet spring and large snowpack delayed the fire season and authorities predicted significant above-average fire potential in August and September. Then, on August 24, 2023 lightning ignited a web of 19 wildfires in the hills around Umpqua, approximately 10 miles west of Sutherlin in Douglas County, Oregon. This web of wildfires became known as the Tyee Ridge Complex of fires.

Lighthouse Center Oregon (LCO) closely monitored the situation as the fire spread throughout the area and stayed alert to any changes in Oregon’s 3-level evacuation notification system. When the fires drew closer, LCO management kept in touch with local authorities and LCO volunteers prepared for possible evacuation. On August 26, local authorities raised the alert to level 2 due to significant danger in the area, prompting LCO to evacuate the property.

LCB and LCO work together to serve first responders

Inspired by the rapid reaction and seamless coordination provided by the sheriff department, fire department, and many other local authorities, LCO wanted to support the first responders. LCO informed officials at the Oregon Department of Forestry that Lighthouse Center Bakery (LCB) would start extending its operating hours from 11am – 7pm daily from August 27. LCO volunteers poured all their energy into serving the community at LCB. First responders were given free food and refreshments, including sandwiches, salads, soup, cake, pastries, fresh fruit and vegetables, coffee, water, and all types of cold drinks.

A focal point for community connection

A symbiotic relationship quickly developed between the first responders and the LCO volunteers as the café became a focal point for community connection in Umpqua. The fire department set up a community board right outside the front doors of LCB where local residents could get updates on the fire. LCB became a community hub where people came to share information, offer services to support the first responders, and get comfort as the fires raged ever closer to many people’s homes. Residents constantly came by to connect with and check on each other.

This sense of community engagement inspired even more care amongst all involved. Local residents brought fresh fruit and flowers to show their appreciation to the first responders. LCB set up a table with bags of fruit to share with the first responders. Neighbors brought fresh produce from their backyard gardens for LCB to cook for the firefighters. Everyone wanted to help out.

As the fires raged ever closer and became clearly visible out the big main windows of the café, LCB became more than a café, it became a haven of connection, sharing, love, and support for all involved. The community had grown with over 1,500 first responders who had come to fight the wildfires. It was special to see how the community supported each other, offering comfort to those who became anxious as the fires crept closer to their homes until finally the rain came and the tides turned.

Fire officials would come into LCB regularly to put up fresh updates on the notice board. First responders had meetings at tables right next to community members. Community members shared their help and support with each other. LCO volunteers provided whatever was needed. Sometimes that was talking, sometimes listening, sometimes making a sandwich, sometimes providing a space, and sometimes it was waiting. With firefighters coming into LCB daily, LCO volunteers got to know them by name as they shared stories and firefighting lingo like ‘mop up that hot spot’, ‘tightlined’, ‘it’s steep and bluffy’, ‘picked up some slopovers’, ‘tie that fire back in’, etc.

Each night around 7pm before LCB closed, some of the fire fighters in the day crew would stop at LCB on their way back to their camp. At the same time, the night crew would be finishing their evening meeting and getting ready for their evening shift. Their fire trucks would pass in front of the bakery as they headed to their assigned locations. 

One night the smoke cleared and many people gathered in the front parking lot outside LCB to see the fire clearly in the next mountain range. Helicopters and single-engine airtankers flew overhead, working closely with heavy equipment operators and hand crews. The helicopters carried huge buckets of water from the Umpqua River to drop over the fire while the airtankers dropped retardant to support the ground crews in the steep or inaccessible terrain. 

Firefighters protected LCO like their own

As the fires got ever closer to the LCO property, LCO volunteers returned on August 29 to meet the firefighters assigned to protect LCO and show them where all the water pumps were located. It was immediately apparent that the firefighters were taking care of LCO as if it was their own. They had learned the names of all the buildings, and had mowed grass, weedeated, cleared leaves from gutters, set up sprinkler systems, hooked up portable water tanks with hoses, cleared brush and trees, wrapped structures in aluminum foil, and more — all to protect LCO’s buildings. They had even watered the garden and greenhouse. Their commitment to LCO was more than dedication, it was love. They said even if the fire came into LCO they would stay and protect the place.

That afternoon, LCO volunteers returned with lunch from LCB and presented them with an assortment of sandwiches, freshly-baked bread and butter, cakes, and of course, good coffee! Again, the synergy of love and support (the hallmark of this whole situation) was ever-evident as the fire loomed closer.

Mother nature graciously brought relief

The next day the threat level escalated to level 3 before finally, at the eleventh hour on September 1, due to the hard work of the firefighters and rain, the wildfires started to recede and evacuation alert level was reduced. LCO volunteers were allowed to return to LCO, grateful that there had been no fire damage to LCO buildings.

With the LCO property now out of the path of immediate danger, the firefighters at LCO moved on to protect other homes and properties. As they left, they stopped by at LCB and LCO volunteers got to meet and thank them personally, hearing stories about the ways the firefighters had protected LCO.

After 2 weeks of extended hours, LCB returned to regular days and hours. LCO volunteers continue to serve free food and refreshments to the firefighters and all involved. Firefighters, you are our guests. We are at your service!

By the end of September, the first responders had contained 90% of the 7,945 acres burned on the Tyee Ridge Complex of fires.