'Once we knew the school building was still here, we knew we were going to have to play a pretty significant role in supporting the community and rebuilding and recovering from this.'
Lane Tompkins, superintendent, McKenzie School District
I really care a lot about this place. It’s home.
My mother graduated from McKenzie in 1972. I’m a member of the class of 2000. I went on to be a principal, a vice principal and I taught social studies here for about seven years. This is my third year as the superintendent.
We’re a pretty small district, about 220 students, about 50 miles east of Eugene/Springfield. Our district runs from about the town of Leaburg all the way up to the county line, to the peaks of the Cascade Mountains. So it's a pretty big district. We like to joke that the community is 50 miles long and a mile wide.
If you've ever driven along the McKenzie River, it is one of the most beautiful, natural rivers in Oregon, and well renowned for fishing. We've had a big timber industry for a while…as timber slowed down our community shrunk quite a bit. So here we're holding on, trying to do our best to serve the students in our community.
The past three years we've been working really hard to implement our vision of place-based and project-based learning. We really felt like we were hitting our stride, and then COVID happened.
Some of our community members are pretty active on Facebook. And there was a lot of comments about the smoke that was blowing into … the area.
I downloaded a scanner app to my phone …and it was really incredible how fast the fire moved… faster than anybody could have predicted. And then the rest of the night was listening to the scanner, trying to figure out where everybody was until the fire took out the communications towers. Then the scanner went blank. Trying to find information in those hours was really, really tough.
So that had been, I think, around 2 in the morning, it finally ended. And then it became a lot of people kind of guessing, is the school there? Is my home there? It was a really weird day and it really impacted a lot of lives.
I think for probably the first 24 hours we weren't sure if the campus was still here. The high school building was built in the 1940s. It's beautiful hardwood, but at the same time, that's hardwood that's been drying. It wasn't until one morning I got a picture…just the shot of the front of the school.
We had some people that went to families in Washington. Some folks ended up on the coast. A lot of people ended up with family in central Oregon. So then trying to give folks the appropriate space, but then also trying to bring people back in to keeping the district functions going. That was the challenge the first few days: connecting with people to make sure everybody was safe. There was a lot of late nights on the phone, a lot of texts, just trying to track people down and make sure everybody was safe.
The district is the closest level of local government for our community, and we're such a focal point of the community that once we knew the school building was still here, we knew we were going to have to play a pretty significant role in supporting the community and rebuilding and recovering from this.
And, you know, that's just us trying to support them the way that they have supported us over the years. Because we have a very supportive community. We really appreciate how engaged they are with the school.
What we need to focus on more as a society is the things that unite us more than the things that divide us. When you're about ready to give up, you see things like this, you know, people coming together, helping each other out. It's just been incredible to see open arms and wallets and closets … it's just been incredible.
OSBA is telling personal stories of hope and perseverance from the state’s three hardest-hit districts: Phoenix-Talent, McKenzie and Santiam Canyon. These “Rising from the Ashes” stories, told in images and words, will show where support is needed most to help Oregon students and their families rebuild. OSBA has established a Wildfire Resources page that includes links to donate to the hardest-hit communities: Phoenix-Talent; McKenzie; and Santiam Canyon.