Stronger Together

October 13, 2020
Reprinted as published in The Merchant Magazine, October 2020 Edition.

Labor Day weekend is usually a glorious weekend in the Pacific Northwest, and folks love getting out into the great outdoors for one last summertime hurrah before school starts, the days get shorter, and leaves change colors. I had just experienced a wonderful Labor Day weekend with my family, but when I woke up on Tuesday, September 9th and checked my email at 6 a.m., the glory stopped.  There was an email from Todd Payne, our CEO, that started with “The perfect storm happened last night up the McKenzie River with high temps, low humidity and a record east wind event.”  He went on to explain that it had already burned in excess of 10,000 acres and multiple structures had been lost or damaged.

Although we had hundreds of vulnerable acres of timberlands up in that area, Todd did not mention them in the email.  The email gave instruction to figure out which Seneca employees live in that area, and to figure out what we could do to help them.  Mandy Sweger, our HR Manager, and I worked as a team and launched into action.  I called local hotels and booked the last suites available in town, and Mandy reached out to employees who had been evacuated to let them know we were here to support them, and we would help with resources including lodging.

One thing we learned that day is that animals can make an evacuation more difficult.  Dogs and cats are not allowed in all hotels, or even family and friends’ homes, so we reached out to our 470 employees who make up our Seneca family, and found some animal-lovers who volunteered to take in some family pets.  We learned of evacuees scrambling to find a place to bring their bigger animals like horses, llamas, and cattle, as well as trying to figure out how to transport them.  We offered to help coordinate large animal relocation and found employees who stepped up and offered their livestock trailers and their fields to their evacuated colleagues.

With our employees cared for, we shifted our focus to the community.  We are working to feed evacuees, give high-viz vests to Red Cross volunteers, buy laptops for the students whose homes were destroyed so they can participate in distance learning, donate lumber for fencing to a generous rancher who now has over 100 horses on his ranch that have been evacuated, give shavings to the Lane County Fairgrounds that is boarding over 500 evacuated large animals, and do a blood drive at Seneca for the Red Cross.

As of this writing, what is now called the Holiday Farm Fire has been burning for 13 days, has burnt over 170,000 acres, and is still only 17% contained.  I wish it were an isolated event in Oregon, but it is not.  Over 40 fires were burning in Oregon at the same time.  Almost a million acres of timberland burned in Oregon as part of the Labor Day storm fires.  That is more acres than make up the state of Rhode Island.

On average, 86% of what burns in Oregon annually is owned and managed by the federal government, but with the catastrophic Labor Day mega fire event, the acres burned more closely mirror timberland ownership in Oregon which is roughly 60% federal land and 40% other. We hope the federal government is allowed to use all of their all of their forest management tools to make our forests healthier and safer for the trees and for communities.

HR Manager Mandy Sweger handed out grocery store gift cards to Seneca employees who were evacuated.

Seneca supplied high-viz vests for Red Cross volunteers.