'People up here are…survivors, they are hard workers. This is not just a single home, now it’s the rebuilding of a community.'
Todd Miller, superintendent, Santiam Canyon School District
I grew up here and graduated from the local high school. Worked on my family’s farm, got a political science degree and they had an opening here for a part-time special ed instructional aide. I enjoyed it and next thing I know I’m a SpEd teacher, then a principal.
This used to be a very heavy timber industry town, and since the 90s enrollment had been declining. Seven years ago, when I started as superintendent, we had a whole brand-new board come on. We had a lot of trust to rebuild with the community. We took that to heart… our three maxims are stand together, find your path and never give up.
We’ve done a lot of great things – we passed a school bond in a community that has never had one before. We’ve got a new Jr./Sr. high school, new cafeteria, a new gym. For us it’s that sign that schools are the hub of this community, and we were within weeks of opening the new buildings.
The fires started on Labor Day. Heavy winds, it was something. People knew we had fire conditions, but I don’t think anyone was prepared for the magnitude. Emergency systems didn’t work, and it became neighbor to neighbor and phone calls to get people out of bed. It spread very quickly. We had a lot of families that grabbed their kids and had no time to pack personal belongings.
Today, the hard part is in knowing where they all are. We sent a survey a couple of weeks ago. Are you in a safe location? What are your immediate needs: food, shelter, clothing? Do you have access to the Internet? Do you have a home to return to in the canyon? Of 157 households, 70% said yes, 18% said no and 12% didn’t know. We still have some families we haven’t heard from.
As much as school is important, for many families it’s not the most important thing right now. We have kids in California, Washington, Idaho, Montana. They just left.
We are excited to get our families back to some sense of normalcy. Some are not ready. We are working in education mode but also as a basic care provider. It’s a real challenge...some of them have lost everything. They came back to nothing. Some don’t have phone, water, Internet.
There’s also the issue of getting back to a sense of safety and security. We are dealing with trauma, and that’s with staff, students, parents, community.
The usual response to wildfire would be to get our kids in, to come together. But with COVID it’s different. We’ve got smoke damage in our buildings, and we are bogged down in a system that is slow.
We can’t provide the services we’d hope to provide until we can get these buildings clean.
Tragedies can bring people together. Schools are that hub of hope for the community, and we believe we have the staff and support systems in place to do that. But it’s going to take time.
People up here are fighters. They are survivors, they are hard workers. This is not just a single home, now it’s the rebuilding of a community.
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.