Wildfires and COVID-19 bring a town together: ‘I was alone… they made sure I was OK’

Adrienne DuRette visits the Salmon River Grange, transformed into a thrift store after the 2020 wildfires where Otis residents can help themselves to whatever they might need.

The town of Otis, Oregon, is tiny, known to most as a blink-and-miss-it spot on the road to the coast. Its 3,000+ residents reflect different backgrounds, ethnicities, politics and gender identities. But one thing they share is a passion for each other.

In the past two years, Otis has been through a lot. It’s still recovering from a historic Labor Day 2020 wildfire that wiped out nearly 300 homes and, more recently, floods that forced evacuations, closed roads and caused landslides.

Through it all, the town has rallied to help anyone they can, however they can. It didn’t matter who you are or what you believe. It was about community.

For long-time Otis resident and community advocate Adrienne DuRette, 70, that meant not having to face COVID-19 alone. DuRette is a fifth-generation Oregonian whose father developed parts of Otis. In the 2020 wildfire she lost her cabin, a 5th wheel, her dogs and countless family heirlooms. She had assumed the role of “collector” in her vast family of 61 first cousins from 12 sets of aunts and uncles. “I had ended up with a lot of special stuff from the family. My grandma lived to be 94; my mother lived to be 94. They had a lot of neat things that got handed down now.”

Adrienne DuRette showing off artwork created by her granddaughter. "She loves seeing the stars with me," says DuRette.
Adrienne DuRette shows off artwork created by her granddaughter. “She loves seeing the stars with me,” says DuRette.

It’s all gone. Now, DuRette lives alone in a cold, drafty 5th wheel, purchased with money she received from FEMA, which is plagued with unexpected problems. When she learned that she had COVID-19, she knew exactly where to turn.

After the wildfires, the Salmon River Grange was transformed into a food bank and thrift store for survivors. People can help themselves to everything from bed linens to knickknacks to personal hygiene products, along with donated gift cards, shoes, clothing, jackets, socks and underwear. People can also reach out to mental health counselors and learn about the occasional community gathering – masks and distancing required – to connect with others.

Grange manager Amy Brown says when word comes that someone is sick, her staff and others swing into action, revving up the meal train and putting together care packages. “We call and say, ‘What is it you can eat? Do you need toilet paper?’” Brown says. Packages might contain food, extra pillows, blankets, books to read, or coloring books with colored pencils. “Anything that can help,” says Brown. “Things to keep a grown up busy so they don’t lose their mind during the isolation.”

DuRette, who was taking care of a litter of orphaned kittens when she fell ill with COVID-19, was thrilled with the kitty litter that came in her care package. “I said, ‘This is miracle kitty litter, you can’t smell anything.’ Amy was cracking up,” said DuRette. “That’s when I realized how bad it was. I couldn’t smell or taste anything.”

It was a light-hearted moment in an otherwise worrisome time. DuRette has type 1 diabetes, glaucoma and was born with birth defects, and she became ill with shortness of breath, fever and fatigue for two weeks. She is also vaccinated against COVID-19 and is certain she would have been much sicker otherwise. It took many more weeks for DuRette to fully recover, and in those weeks, the offerings of food, gifts and get-well cards poured in.

“It was pretty incredible,” DuRette said. “I was alone. Once or twice a day, they made sure I was OK. A lot of these people didn’t know me. I try to give as much as I can to the community, and I really got that back.”

One of the things DuRette has given the community is a piece of her land. After the wildfires, locals started an all-volunteer non-profit to help replant Otis. It’s called Landscaping With Love, and DuRette’s land is home to the group’s green house and storage. So far, Landscaping With Love has helped about 120 homeowners begin turning their charred properties green and alive again.

“People needed people,” said Bethany Grace Howe, executive director of Echo Mt. Fire Relief. People in Otis tend to be independent, says Howe, content to mind their own business and expecting others to do the same. But with COVID and the wildfire, that changed.

“People who previously wanted to do it alone had to say to their neighbor, ‘I need help.’ People realized needing help is not a bad thing, but also that ‘I get to live near some really cool people.’” What’s more, said Howe: “I’ve heard people say that they have gotten to know their neighbors more in the last 18 months than in the last 18 years.”