Five months after the Holiday Farm Fire sparked on Labor Day, many of the residents of the upper McKenzie River valley are still without reliable internet access or phones.
On a given day, you’ll see several cars in the parking lot outside the Christian Church along highway 126 in McKenzie Bridge. This is one of the few places you can get high speed internet. People sit in their cars on zoom calls, attend online school, or catch up with family and friends on social media.
“Yeah, we’ve been doing school in the back of the car for the last couple months,” said Courtney Lewis.
Lewis and her three kids just wrapped up the school day. Her twin 2nd graders Katy and Royal described their back-of-the-car classroom experience.
“We’ve been online in the back of the car with all of the cars driving by and it’s really tough to hear our teacher,” Katy Lewis said.
“It’s really stressful going in the back of a car when you hear these cars go by and you’re trying to get all your answers that you need,” added her brother Royal Lewis.
Their big brother John, a 5th grader, said it’s been tough dealing with the fire and a pandemic.
“You’ve got to admit, it was hard enough with one," said John Lewis. “One alone could have been a catastrophe.”
“Digital learning is kind of a curve ball in and of itself.” Courtney Lewis said. “But doing it from the back seat of a car is really an added hurdle.”
Courtney Lewis told KLCC her family moved to Vida last summer and bought their dream house. Two months later, it burned down in the Holiday Farm Fire. They found a rental here in McKenzie Bridge. But they still have no internet. The latest update from Spectrum is that maybe by the end of the month they’ll be hooked up.
This church is one of several spots that were equipped with internet access early on thanks to a coalition of volunteers called Oregon Internet Response. Brent Caulley is the church pastor. He surveyed the parking lot.
“So, yeah, all these cars,” Caulley said. “All these cars kind of scattered around. They’re all doing what they have to do. The guy in the pickup truck, I’ll see him late into the night.”
Caulley also teaches at McKenzie Community School in Blue River. The school is one of the few buildings in Blue River that survived the Holiday Farm Fire. But, the fire delayed the first day of school in the fall.
“It took months to even get to a place where kids had their chromebooks and connectivity just in being able to find out where are the kids now? Do they need internet where they’re at?” Caulley asked. “Are they in a hotel that has internet or are they still upriver and there’s nothing?”
Caulley said the internet was never great up here. But since the fire, the lack of service has been an additional stressor for people trying to rebuild and return to some semblance of normalcy. Caulley said some folks who said they’d rebuild are now discouraged.
“Where they’re having to say they just can’t do it any more they can’t fight the fight anymore,” said Caulley. “And unfortunately a lot of people have reached that point because its taken so long to get stuff done. And a big portion of that, unfortunately, is still just communication.”
As a volunteer firefighter, Caulley added the lack of phone coverage is another worry because while cell coverage is mostly restored, land lines are not.
Lane County spokesperson Devon Ashbridge said the fire destroyed much of the communication system.
“Honesty, the county doesn’t have a direct role as far as actually repairing the infrastructure,” said Ashbridge. “But we’ve absolutely been working with the communications companies as partners as they’re working to rebuild the infrastructure so there’s been some really tangible progress made.”
Of the two companies that service the area, Spectrum is closer to full restoration.
McKenzie Bridge resident Sherry Franzen is still waiting for CenturyLink to restore her service which she hasn’t had since the fire. She lost her sister to COVID last spring.
“Not having any internet or phone at home right now is really sad right now,” Franzen said. “I was very used to staying home and being on facebook to keep in touch with friends and family. And that ended.”
Franzen said she’s grateful her house didn’t burn. She comes to the church parking lot several times a day.
Brent Caulley said he’d like a shift in how high speed internet is regarded-- as more of a utility. But when he approached officials about the lack of internet, he said it wasn’t taken as seriously.
“It was seen as more of a frivolous thing that you were requesting,” said Caulley.
The Oregon Internet Response team, which set up those hot spots early on, is seeking a grant to help establish a more resilient internet service in the region.
Copyright 2021 KLCC.