In early September, Linn County Commissioner Will Tucker was pondering his pending retirement and was starting to go through files while cleaning out his office on the second floor of the Linn County Courthouse.
Like most other Linn County residents, he was also enjoying the Labor Day weekend.
But Labor Day afternoon, 60-plus mph east winds turned small wildfires into uncontrollable blazes that surrounded Linn and Marion counties, displacing hundreds of families and causing untold millions of dollars in damage.
Tucker, and fellow commissioners Roger Nyquist and John Lindsey, wasted no time in declaring an emergency and opening up the Linn County Fair & Expo Center as a shelter for the first time in its 25-plus-year history.
"It was amazing how things came together," Tucker said. "The fires were fast, hard and quick. Our staff, the Red Cross, Salvation Army and Samaritan Health Services came together just as quickly and made this happen."
At one point, the shelter was housing more than 700 people either in vehicles in the parking lot or indoors, and more than 1,000 large animals at the Linn and Benton county fairgrounds, not counting numerous dogs and cats.
"We have a major disaster plan, but that is based on the Red Cross developing a shelter," Tucker said. "The Red Cross was slammed with all of the fires and numbers of communities affected, plus there was a hurricane in the southeast part of the country. We had to move forward on our own."
Tucker said the shelter used Red Cross paperwork when registering people.
"The Red Cross provided a trailer filled with emergency supplies, but we decided to not open it and leave it intact in case someone else needed it," Tucker said.
Tucker said that early on, some people came to the shelter that should have been taken to a medical clinic or assisted living facility.
"We had people on oxygen," Tucker said. "Oxygen is highly flammable and oxygen bottles should be attached to something rigid. Our cots were not set up for that."
Tucker said the number of volunteers who showed up to help without being called, "was amazing."
"And food started pouring in," Tucker said. "We immediately sent staff to Costco to buy a couple pallets of water. By the time they got back to the fairgrounds, water was already showing up."
Soon, other items such as diapers, underwear and work clothes arrived as well.
"Many of these people left their homes with only the clothes on their backs and everything they own is gone," Tucker said.
Tucker said a small city soon came together.
"A group of volunteers started a daily laundry service," Tucker said. "They would pick up items in the morning, take them home, launder them, fold them and have them back that afternoon."
Tucker said volunteers provided free haircuts, musicians provided music in the dining area and folks dressed up in super hero costumes to entertain children.
Tucker said staff from Samaritan Health Services and COMP-Northwest quickly established a medical clinic for humans and local veterinarians treated animals who had been burned or were traumatized by the fires.
"We had support from Dan Keteri at Albany General, Marty Cahill from Lebanon Community and Doug Boysen, Samaritan's CEO," Tucker said. "Marty delivered, or had delivered, medical supplies every day. They were awesome and the COMP-Northwest students dived right in and were willing to help in any way they could. Some even unloaded hay, although I don't think that was something they were used to."
Mental health assistance was provided daily as was spiritual comfort by emergency services chaplains.
Tucker said staff from OSU-Extension Service and 4-H took on the task of developing a livestock holding area.
"Michelle Webster and Andrea Leao were right on it," Tucker said. "Shelly Boshart Davis jumped right in as well and her sister, Katie Boshart Glaser came in every night after work to help clean up. She didn't have to do that, but she did."
County staff quickly installed heavy metal farm panels in the livestock area.
"These things are 12-feet by 12-feet and weigh several hundred pounds," Tucker said. "We couldn't have volunteers with no experience handling them."
The rodeo arena was opened up so horses could be exercised, Tucker said.
Truckloads of sawdust were also needed, Tucker said.
Tucker said the Salvation Army was on scene from the start.
"They prepared three hot meals a day, made sack lunches and always had snacks any time of day," Tucker said. "We were concerned about serving anything that hadn't been wrapped, but restaurants soon figured that out and we had lots and lots of food donated by local restaurants."
They also delivered food to families staying in area hotels.
Tucker said it was heartwarming to see the Linn-Benton Community College culinary students, instructors and alumni "show up with their knife rolls and get to work."
Food and other items have been turned over to the Santiam Canyon Relief Fund, which has distribution sites in Lyons, Mill City, Gates and Sublimity.
Tucker said sleeping areas were cordoned off for males, females and families.
Linn County had already purchased numerous cots, but learned they needed to add several larger models, Tucker said.
"We made sure cots were at least 8 to 10 feet apart and in areas where people may be more susceptible to COVID-19, we placed cots about 20 feet apart," Tucker said.
COVID-19 was always a concern, Tucker said, and there was a scary moment when an older man originally tested positive, but two other tests indicated it was actually negative.
"We had already begun testing nurses and anyone else who may have come in contact with him," Tucker said.
Other than a small office, the fairgrounds has been returned to normal, Tucker said.
"FEMA is here and we encourage people to work with them," Tucker said.
A resource site has been established in Sublimity, Tucker said.
Tucker is also trying to get 65 camping trailers from FEMA to be used by displaced families.