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As crews fight regional wildfires, relief workers fight misinformation and misguided charity

Helicopter and crew.
A firefighting helicopter for the Lookout Fire response stands ready at a helibase, while its crew and firefighters visit.

While locals near the Lookout Fire are experiencing flashbacks over 2020’s Holiday Farm Fire, the good news is that this latest incident in the McKenzie River area does not appear to be a repeat of that disaster.

Melanie Stanley is the resource manager at the Cascade Relief Team’s Resource Center at Blue River. She told KLCC that many people in the McKenzie River Corridor live in a perpetual “Level One – Be Ready” mindset. But in spite of the gusts and high temps, the Lookout Fire is less aggressive than the one almost three years ago.

“This fire has been slower moving than that fire was, and they’re being able to prepare a lot further in advance and give people more warning and notice,” said Stanley. “So that people are able to have a lot more opportunity to be able to get out a little bit earlier, so it’s not quite that panicked run.”

Man walking through burnt forest area.
Brian Bull
A public information officer with the Holiday Farm Fire walks through a charred and cut landscape, Sept. 17, 2020.

The Holiday Farm Fire consumed more than 173,000 acres in 2020, and destroyed most of the Blue River community. Rebuilding efforts are still ongoing, three years later.

Battling bad actors and wrong information

Besides wildfires, another threat to public safety is misinformation being spread across social media about the incidents.

For example, during the 2020 Oregon wildfires rumors spread that they were started by Antifa, or alternately, the Proud Boys. Some armed locals even set up impromptu, illegal checkpoints near fire zones, before being sent home by law enforcement.

Jamee Savidge is with the Cascade Relief Team on the McKenzie. She told KLCC that there are still concerning rumors and speculation over the Lookout and Bedrock Fires from self-proclaimed experts who may not have the most accurate or timely information.

“I can’t stress enough how frustrating it is for someone to receive bad information and they are in full-blown panic mode and the information they have is not correct,” said Savidge. “And you have to talk them down from that ledge and try to pull perspective back for them a little.”

Savidge said the Oregon State Fire Marshal’s Office, Lane County Sheriff’s Office, and the local fire departments are valid sources, as well as non-profits directly engaged with emergency response efforts.

There are two Facebook accounts devoted to the wildfires:

Lookout Fire Information

Bedrock Fire Information

Good intentions, bad donations

Meanwhile, Savidge has a message to people wanting to help with the Lookout, Bedrock, and Salmon Fires: keep away.

Savidge said people are often curious and want to drop off items they assume are necessary for evacuees, but this kind of help can backfire.

Volunteers with food baskets.
Joel Muniz
Sometimes donations are timely and vital, and other times unnecessary and a burden. Relief workers advise people to call ahead or review donation wish-lists before dropping off items that may not be usable.

“I urge you, don’t come up here unless you are immediately involved in any of the fires that are happening in our area because traffic is absolutely crazy with the emergency responders,” explained Savidge. “If you want to donate, contact the evacuation centers. Ask them what they need. Don’t show up with a trailer-load with things to donate. And just stay as informed as you possibly can.”

Sometimes donations are made that have no immediate or practical purpose, or are problematic to handle or store.

Savidge has been helping locals around the McKenzie River Corridor prepare for evacuation. Many are still rebounding from the catastrophic Holiday Farm Fire, which ravaged much of the area in 2020.

Note: KLCC is trying to determine the direct phone number for the evacuation center set up at Lowell High School. Several sources say the Red Cross is operating it, and the Southwest Oregon chapter’s phone number is (541)344-5244.

Lane County has set up a non-emergency call center for information on evacuations and shelters at 541-682-2055.

Brian Bull is an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Oregon, and remains a contributor to the KLCC news department. He began working with KLCC in June 2016.   In his 27+ years as a public media journalist, he's worked at NPR, Twin Cities Public Television, South Dakota Public Broadcasting, Wisconsin Public Radio, and ideastream in Cleveland. His reporting has netted dozens of accolades, including four national Edward R. Murrow Awards (22 regional),  the Ohio Associated Press' Best Reporter Award, Best Radio Reporter from  the Native American Journalists Association, and the PRNDI/NEFE Award for Excellence in Consumer Finance Reporting.
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