Aaron Thompson, Upward Bound board chairman and a parishioner of St. Juan Diego Parish in Northwest Portland
Aaron Thompson, Upward Bound board chairman and a parishioner of St. Juan Diego Parish in Northwest Portland

GATES — A small Christian camp in a tiny Oregon town swiftly transformed into a hub for firefighters battling what would become one of Oregon’s largest blazes. Even more rapidly it was altered into a site of charred buildings and destroyed firefighting equipment.

Now staff of Upward Bound, a camp for individuals with physical and cognitive disabilities, aim to rebuild with the same approach they take running their programs.

“We have to trust in God every step of the way,” said Aaron Thompson, Upward Bound board chairman and a parishioner of St. Juan Diego Parish in Northwest Portland.

The mission of the nondenominal camp, founded more than 40 years ago and supported by many local Catholics, is to help attendees know “God loves them and creation is God’s gift to them,” Thompson said. Campers, ages 12 and up, often attend for decades and keep returning into their 60s.

Along with summer sessions, there are holiday-themed camps and respite-care programs that offer caregivers time to recharge.

Last year the camp relocated from a spot on the North Santiam River to the campus of the former Gates school. The 10-acre property contained two school buildings and a forested area.

The Friday before the historic Labor Day fires, the U.S. Forest Service asked camp leadership if they could use the expansive campus as an incident command post for firefighters working on the nearby Beachie Creek Fire, initially a modest-sized burn ablaze since mid-August. The fire had remained safely on the opposite side of a nearby mountain, but high winds were predicted to exacerbate existing fires.

Camp leaders, eager to help, approved the request within a day.

Hours later, a firefighter community sprung up on the property, making it nearly unrecognizable, recalled Diane Turnbull, executive director of Upward Bound. “There were showers and food trucks, bathrooms and water trucks, and a mobile command center,” she said. By Monday the camp had grown to more than 300 personnel. “We are a small operation and to see that was mind-boggling.”

An incident command post for the U.S. Forest Service is pictured before the fire destroyed it late on Labor Day. At one point the post had more than 300 personnel. (Courtesy Upward Bound)

The gusts arrived Monday, and fires began igniting around the city of Gates, including at the camp. Transformers exploded, trees and power lines toppled and the grass began to burn.

Turnbull witnessed something she’ll never forget. “At first I thought it was the grass, but then realized, no, it’s the chain-link fence. I didn’t think it was possible, but the chain-link fence caught fire.”

“It was pretty much chaos,” added Larry Parrish, the facilities manager for Upward Bound who’d been on campus helping firefighters access facilities.

All members of the command center crew, even individuals working in finance and fire logistics, were needed to thwart the flames.

After nearly an hour of intense response, the fire was extinguished and “all was well,” said Thompson.

Later that night, however, the Beachie Creek Fire, swelling more quickly than fire experts anticipated, began to approach.

“You could see the fire coming, see the glow,” said Turnbull. “The firefighters said, ‘We are evacuating and we suggest you do the same.’”

The need for a rapid evacuation meant the firefighters left behind critical gear and equipment, including a semitruck that had been turned into a command center. They also left behind personal belongings.

Nearly all of it would be destroyed.

The next day, Upward Bound staff thought the camp was gone, too. “That was pretty tough to hear,” recalled Turnbull, adding that three staff members lost their homes.

In reality the damage was not total but significant. The program building with dorm rooms, administrative offices, and chapel was burned, along with the gym, a maintenance building and a garage. A van used for excursions into nature went up in flames, as did portions of the forested area, where last year campers helped cut down a Christmas tree.

Turnbull’s house survived, as well as a historic Gates school building, which includes the kitchen and cafeteria, and two outdoor pavilions.

“If the campus had been burned completely it would have been difficult to think about rebuilding; it would be overwhelming,” said Turnbull. “God is good.”

U.S. Forest Service firefighting equipment is charred after the Beachie Creek Fire swept through an incident command post established at Upward Bound. (Courtesy Upward Bound) 

Even before the historic Oregon fires, the coronavirus had stained camp operations. Fewer campers could attend, and federal relief funds were needed to keep the organization afloat.

“It’s definitely been a struggle, and we’ve had to completely change up programming ” to ensure campers’ safety and follow public health guidelines, said Thompson. But he feels the camp is vital amid the pandemic.

Many campers are adults with special needs who in normal times have limited social activities. The coronavirus has curbed socialization even further.

“Some can’t cope with the masks or can’t comprehend what to touch or not to touch, so many don’t get to go out very often,” Thompson said. “Now more than ever they really enjoy their time at camp and having someone new to love on them.”

Upward Bound plans to hold some version of camps this summer as new buildings are erected. Activities may occur under tents, and it “likely will have a more rustic feel,” said Thompson.

Turnbull and Thompson have found a silver lining in the losses. The main school building wasn’t ideal for the camp’s programs, and the hope is that insurance funds can be used to rebuild structures that are a better fit. Camp families have stepped forward with support, and staff hope to add some additional elements, such as a large garden and animal pens.

“It was frightening and it’s hard, but they say that out of the ashes come new beginnings,” said Parrish. “And that’s what I think will happen at Upward Bound.”

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