Christina Pettner can’t wait to return home but fears what she’ll see when she arrives.
The 47-year-old Pettner knows her house in Rainbow, a small town along the McKenzie River, is safe from western Oregon’s raging wildfires. It’s the destruction in the valley she has called home her entire life that stokes her anxieties.
Neighbors and longtime friends have lost everything.
“I don’t know if emotionally I can handle it, going back,” she said Saturday outside the Super 8 hotel in Redmond, where she is one of dozens of wildfire evacuees being housed by the Red Cross.
Pettner knows she has to make the return trip. She is needed at the Blue Sky Market in Blue River, where she works as the assistant manager. The market was one of the few Blue River structures to survive the Holiday Farm Fire, which authorities say had burned 161,826 acres by Saturday.
“We need to be there for the community,” Pettner said. “But what community is there?”
Like the other evacuees at the Super 8, Pettner and her daughter are in limbo. Their lives have been upended and they are living with paralyzing uncertainty.
That’s what moved Crystal Batti, the assistant childhood minister at Redmond’s Highland Baptist Church, to help. The Redmond woman coordinated with others in the community to donate boxes and bags of clothing, toys and toiletries on Saturday.
Batti heard the Red Cross and other organizations were spread too thin to help all the needs of the displaced families.
So Batti connected with the Mission Church across the street from the Super 8 to use the church’s parking lot as a donation center. Families spent Saturday sifting through the donated items and were given gift cards to grocery stores, fast food restaurants and gas stations.
“We are doing whatever we can to put food in their bellies, clothes on their backs and love them where they are,” Batti said.
Sherry Franzen and her partner, Randy Gicker, picked up a few T-shirts from the donation pile. The couple has been staying at the Super 8 since Tuesday, when they evacuated from their home in McKenzie Bridge east of Blue River.
Franzen, a 64-year-old retired home care worker, said their house was spared from the fire, but they do not expect to have power, water or a working telephone when they return. She still hopes to make it back home next week and camp in their home like they’ve done during major snow storms.
“I’m not going to wait until the power gets put on,” Franzen said. “When we had snow, we did fine.”
Franzen is trying to stay optimistic, pointing to rain in the forecast next week that should help combat the fires and heavy smoke across the state. It has been hard to imagine the damage to the McKenzie Valley, she said.
The totality of the destruction won’t hit her until she sees it, she said.
“I haven’t cried,” Franzen said. “I could probably use a good cry.”
For Pettner, she has a lifetime of memories along the McKenzie River. She knows most of the residents, who have all been texting and emailing each other to make sure everyone is safe.
“It’s just a really great community,” Pettner said. “Everyone watches out for each other.”
Pettner is heartbroken at the thought of what’s been lost. Every building has a memory and many of those buildings have disappeared in the flames, including the Christmas Treasures, a holiday gift shop in Blue River.
Pettner and her daughter would buy an ornament from the shop every holiday season and mark it with the year before hanging it on their Christmas tree.
“It was one of our little traditions,” Pettner said.
Without the gift shop, Pettner wonders what will become of her tradition.
Since arriving at the Super 8, Pettner has struggled with her feelings. She said she’s smoking more, drinking, too.
“I feel guilty,” she said. “My house is OK, and other people’s aren’t. It’s very humbling.”