Employees from every department in Jackson County were part of the Fire Response and Running of the Evacuation Center at the Expo.
I wrote an article last month about the expo staff and what they did after the fire to stand up an evacuation center. Because I am on the fair board, it blew me away how a small team could react to crisis during a pandemic shut down and I wanted to share that story.
But I soon found out that was only a small portion of the whole story.
I personally visited the expo two times during the crisis to help out where I could without getting in the way. Both times it felt calm and organized and very well run to me. It felt like a small city was stood up overnight. There were big professional signs that were way points for services and I fell in love with so many helpers especially the traveling nurses.
I had a chance to sit down (virtually) with Steve Lambert of Jackson County Parks to find out how much of the county responded that day and for weeks after the fire, under his calm and inspiring management.
Steve was very clear that this article should not be about him and asked that I mention him as little as possible. He wanted me to let you know, that it took the response of the entire county staff to pull off what they did.
So I’ll honor his request and I’ll only mention him at the beginning and at the end… and maybe a little in the middle.
Steve Lambert got an urgent call from his daughter, in the early afternoon on September 8th, 2020, letting him know that she was being evacuated. He arranged to evacuate her to a hotel in Medford and he felt good about getting his daughter and grandson out of harms way so he could focus on the task at hand.
A few hours later, he got another call from her. The hotel in Medford was being evacuated as well, as the fire raged through Talent and Phoenix and was making its way toward Medford.
He looked around and saw the chaos that was unfolding in front of him at the expo, as evacuees started showing up, cots were being setup and volunteers started to arrive and he told her to come there.
There was plenty of room.
A few hours later, there were thousands of evacuees spending the night in cars, in tents, under the stars, in makeshift hospitals and on cots in arenas.
At the beginning of 2020, Steve Lambert was the Jackson County Parks Director. He oversaw all the county parks which include 19 developed parks and over 700 campsites (RV and tent camping) and outdoor recreation areas on rivers and lakes. He moved here in 2009 after managing parks in Linn County, Oregon for 10 years.
In March of this year the state mandated a COVID shutdown of parks and he was reassigned to the EOC (Emergency Operations Center) under John Vile, director of Jackson County Roads and the Emergency Operations Center Director.
He was assigned in the spring to stand up a makeshift quarantine center in the OLSRUD arena at the Jackson County Expo as part of his duties, with cots surrounded by pipe and drape for privacy. He focused his energy on being able to quarantine and provide care for homeless, LatinX, migrant farmworkers as well as handling many social and soft issues.
It was because of his new duties that he built bridges to organizations he would have never have while just running the parks.
He told me that the irony of being sent onsite the day of the fire was that the first round of evacuees included migrant farm workers that spoke very little English and Steve was able to reach out to his contacts at UNETE and they came down and interpreted for them within 30 minutes of being called.
Around noon on the the day of the fire, John asked him to head down to the expo to give Helen a hand and to get the facility ready from an EOC standpoint. He showed up thinking that they might have to deal with 30 to 40 evacuees, not the thousands that showed up several hours later.
The first thing he needed to do was rally the troops and orchestrate the building of a duplicate setup of the migrant worker COVID medical facility they had in OLSRUD into the PADGHAM Pavilion. Parks, Expo and Central Point Public Works employees all worked together to pull this off.
As they finished it, the evacuees from the Northridge Retirement Center, which burned to the ground, started to show up and were immediately housed in that building.
That was when he realized that the care needs of individuals was more than they were prepared to handle. The OSLRUD had high-care-need people assigned to it. Some were in hospice and only days away from passing away. They were the medical fragile.
They also setup a community center in the MACE building, so that evacuees could get out of their cars and relax in front of a TV for a little while and use the rest room, all while still maintaining social distancing.
He called Danny Jordan, Jackson County Administrator, and asked for more help. Danny got him in touch with Dr. Jim Shames, Jackson County Medical Director/Health Officer and Dr. Shames sent Emergency Room Doctors to help from Providence Hospital, many of which ended up staying the night with these medically fragile people that first night. Traveling nurses also started showing up.
Steve even remembers driving to the Rogue Valley Manor to pickup oxygen at 3:30AM.
Ali Lefler from the Expo went to local grocery stores and Costco, that she somehow got them to open at 2am, to get breakfast for everyone because they were worried that people would be angry if they didn’t have food for them when they woke up in the morning.
The second day gave them time to catch their breath and get organized. They got teams from Jackson County Public Health to help out. Dr. Mary Cutler and a COVID response team took over and ran the medical space for the following week and a half.
Doctors and Nurses from all over the valley started showing up. They had evacuees needing medication and medical attention.
He pointed out several times during the interview how he witnessed time and time again and how impressed he was with everyone rising to the challenge and rallying the troops. It really made a deep impression on him, how fast everyone came together and how well they worked together for the first emergency of this scale in Southern Oregon.
Ramping up was easy, ramping down was harder. They needed to find long term help.
The first day was meeting the immediate needs of the masses, the second day he realized that they had to focus on the long term care of individuals. They needed to get the unstable to stable and then find ways to keep them stable for the long term.
Autumn Doshier and Rick Rawlins from Jackson County Mental Health worked hard to find new care facilities for each person. It took them a week and half to empty out the makeshift medical center.
Steve went home that afternoon to finally get some sleep. An hour later he was called back to the expo. There was a fire in Central Point and it was growing out of control and they needed to evacuate the expo. Eventually, the fire was put out, before it got too close, but that second fire attack was scary and unsettling for the evacuees and the volunteers that were onsite to provide support for the first fire victims.
Steve was also quick to point out how many people from the health community showed up to provide care and he kept reminding me that these local unsung heroes did all the face to face work and most of Jackson County staff were onsite providing support.
That second day they reorganized and put J Domis, Deputy Director of Roads and Parks, in charge of operations, and Eric Spivak, the county auditor, tin charge of planning. Steve was also thankful that Jenna Marmon from ODOT was loaned to the cause for 2 weeks.
After 48 hours he started to focus on long term structure and care.
- They had bathrooms to keep clean and people to feed.
- They had someone from facilities doing repairs and maintenance from 6am to Midnight.
- They had security from Community Justice department providing 24×7 roaming security.
- The OSU extension office connected folks to local resources
They also had several non-profits and local businesses on site providing support as well.
Jim DeBoer from the Sign Dude, just showed up and asked what was needed and then donated all the signs put up around the expo, creating way points and letting people know where to go for help.
La Clinica was onsite providing support and care.
Rogue Valley COAD (Community Organizations Active in Disaster) and United Way sent volunteers – They provided 1,000’s of hours of volunteers, managed and coordinated in guiding and providing interpretive services.
Phoenix/Talent School District was onsite every day, because everyone trusts the teachers, principals and partners of the schools.
Jackson County Animal shelter, evacuated by the fire, ended up at the expo with all the animals and it was a god-send to have animal experts on hand to help people cope and get reunited with animals.
Steve reached out to the state and asked for mobile laundry and showers and an office and they were delivered in 72 hours.
The Red Cross showed up the first day, but didn’t take over the effort for about 5 days. The Salvation Army sent a mobile kitchen and took over feeding everyone.
The shelter stood for a couple of weeks and thousands of people and animals were processed in and out, many with the sad reality of not having a home to return to.
It eventually relocated to the City of Medford because it was closer to the areas impacted and Steve and his crew started the long process of tearing it all down and getting some much needed rest.
Steve, a longterm government employee and man that manages parks for the county, will never forget the experience of watching all the county employees come together to help the community they serve, for several weeks, during a global pandemic and dealing with a huge wildfire loss to the community, with smiles on their faces knowing that they were helping each other, get through this, together.
Steve realized that COVID is the reason this was all able to happen so quickly and easily.
He spent months building relationships with outside organizations and building trust between them. It only took a quick call after that and they were able to get all the resources they needed.
And I realized during the interview that it also takes a great leader to rise from the chaos to “rally the troops” and I’m grateful that Steve Lambert was the one chosen.
By Jim Teece
Southern Oregon Business Journal Publisher