Portland, United States – Hunter Bombadier has spent most of the past year protesting for an end to police violence and racism against black people – and helping communities hard hit by the COVID-19 pandemic.
In this way, the 33-year-old member of Symbiosis, a network of left-wing organizations in the United States, was ready to help when massive forest fires broke out south of Portland, Oregon, forcing tens of thousands of people to flee their homes.
“We were able to use the existing programming and infrastructure,” said Bombadier Al Jazeera in a recent telephone interview.
The group had a system in place to supply the communities affected by COVID-19, Bombadier said, and had built relationships with other activist organizations to coordinate their efforts.
The groups use multiple supply dispensaries across the state, often in public parks or parking lots, and coordinate their efforts through a central volunteer hub. These volunteers work every day, often late into the night, receiving and distributing donated supplies in coordination with people in areas affected by forest fires.
A destroyed fire station is seen after wildfire broke through the area in Blue River, Oregon, United States on September 23, 2020. REUTERS / Jim Urquhart (Reuters)
“We believe in the strength of our communities,” said Bombadier.
When the wildfires escalated in Oregon in early September, Portland had seen police violence protests for more than 100 days.
The “Antifa” movement had been blamed for the protests by US President Donald Trump, and when the fires broke out, conspiracy theories spread that left activists had supposedly started them. Local officials and the FBI debunked these theories.
In fact, the same groups that have slandered Trump and other right-wing leaders over the past few months have brought relief to those affected by the fires.
Most Oregoners know someone who was directly affected by these fires. They lost a home, or damaged a home, or in some cases lost a family member
“[We] I believe in a fairer and more generous world, and we try to live that, ”said Stella Fiore, a member of a collective called The Witches that formed to support local protests.
The group now mostly brings supplies like N95 masks to homeless camps in Portland.
Nearly a million acres (404,700 hectares) burned to the ground in multiple fires in the state on the west coast of the United States, temporarily causing Portland to have the worst air quality in the world. Many displaced people face additional health risks due to the smoke caused by the flames.
Oregon Office of Emergency Management director Andrew Phelps said that by September 16, more than 3,000 people were in need of emergency shelter assistance.
“Most Oregonians know someone who was directly affected by these fires. They lost a home, or damaged a home, or in some cases lost a family member, ”Phelps told Al Jazeera.
Phelps said the forest fires would have widespread effects across all parts of the state, from the health effects of the smoke to the enormous devastation in many rural counties where communities need support from outside organizations to help manage the initial crisis.
“We rely very heavily on volunteer organizations to provide relief … Disaster relief is not just a government job,” said Phelps, who noted that community groups and nonprofits are a significant part of all disaster relief efforts.
“These little kind acts make a big difference in how our communities will recover.”
‘Helping each other’
The effects of the forest fires also extend beyond the rural suburbs of Portland.
In Jackson County, a fire-ravaged area next to California, an ad hoc coalition called Rogue Valley Mutual Aid came together. Activists call their mobilization “mutual aid” and they said it was an alternative to charity aimed at empowering communities.
“One of the most exciting things about helping one another is that it’s this incredible reminder that communities can meet each other’s needs if we just show up and turn our backs on each other,” said Allie Rosenbluth, a fellow at Rogue Climate and a climate justice group Mutual aid coordinator.
City guides estimate at least 600 homes were lost in the Almeda fire when it burned through Talent and Phoenix, Oregon [Nathan Howard/Getty Images/AFP]Rosenbluth, a resident of the Talent rural community in Oregon, has been evacuated from her home. She is now helping with resource gathering and transportation to places where displaced people congregate, such as the parking lot of a Walmart.
“We have these relationships that already exist [the fires] and were really critical for this current moment, ”she said, adding that her years of working with the community helped fight the fire.
Members of indigenous communities in Oregon were also hardest hit by the forest fires. In many cases, the flames worsened already dire situations in reserves affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and a lack of adequate access to water.
Some groups are responding directly to this need by sending supplies and clean water directly to the indigenous communities.
“A vision came to me: Our cities can support our reservations,” said Jason Umtuch, founder of Fire Igniting the Spirit and a member of Warm Springs, a reservation in northern Oregon. Umtuch coordinates the distribution of supplies with five tribes in Oregon and Washington state.
“The real vision has come alive,” Umtuch told Al Jazeera. “We can do it together as a people.”
Other activists have turned directly from their focus on anti-police brutality protests, such as Don’t Shoot PDX, a Portland-based group founded in 2014 to counter police killings of blacks and other police violence.
“It came from two donation centers and worked in my garage,” said Barak Goodman, a member of the group, who said “the community came together in a great way” when the fires raged.
Community health workers identified themselves who help demonstrators if they are injured during protests also hand out N95 masks and other materials to displaced persons.
According to official figures, Oregon will feel the effects of the forest fires in the coming years [Kathryn Elsesser/AFP]As the fires across Oregon slowly stem, the entire state will face their aftermath for years to come – and activists said they would continue to help their neighbors rebuild their communities.
“We believe in helping one another, not charity, and we work mostly in places and with populations that we belong to,” said Jesse, a street doctor with the Rosehip Medic Collective, who asked that only their first names be used.
“Our people who respond to the countryside have lived or worked a lot in these areas and are there at the request of the people currently living there.”