Lessons Learned from the Clackamas Wildfires

Remember the fires? They seemed like so long ago, and they’re not even fully put out yet. And yet, a few short weeks ago, they burned less than a mile away from Zach Pilorget’s house in Mulino.

Zach had left his home on Sept. 10 — certain he would never see it upright again.

Across the Molalla River, his high school friend Antonio Arredondo (that’s me) raced over to his Canby house from his college in Newberg, hell-bent on making sure that his three cats were okay. My family had left a day prior and, as far as I knew, was not planning on returning for a bit.

The three saints known as Latte, Fluffball, and Tiger lay at home, exposed to the horrors of the fire. I was the only man who could save them. Fueled by panic — fruit snacks — I sped home.

Zach’s and my responses show how different people can react to the wild world of 2020 that we live in. A pandemic, wildfires, the Lakers are NBA champions. Sometimes, it feels like the world is ending. And it sure did seem like it on that September day.

Zach’s family lives in Mulino, right by the Ranch Hills Golf Course. Zach, his dad, mom, two dogs, and several horses reside at the Pilorget residence.

At first, the Oregon State lacrosse player did not think much of the fires. They had happened before, of course, and had never gotten anywhere close enough to threaten their property.

It was only when our friend Joe described the seriousness of it that he began to worry. As Mulino entered a level 2 evacuation warning, the Pilorgets shuttled the horses to a friend’s barn and moved in with their grandma in Hillsboro.

Still, nothing seemed pressing to Zach. We’ve become so desensitized to atrocities and natural disasters this year that this seemed pretty minor. There’s a pandemic going on; that’s enough to worry about — for now, anyway. He even went home the next night, unfazed by the fires.

At school in Newberg, I was not handling things as well. Stressed out about the fires back home and my family evacuating, I distracted myself by doing homework. Crazy, I know. That’s how desperate I was.

Despite living farther away, I was scared. What if my house disappeared? What if I never say my cats again? What if there was a pie in the fridge that would be lost forever? Thoughts swirled through my head all night.

In Mulino, things deteriorated quickly after Zach returned home. With the air quality sitting at a crisp 500 and a level 3 evacuation order looming, the family decided to leave the house once again.

“It really hit me when someone was serious when we had to evacuate for the second time,” he said. Those same emotions and thoughts that I had experienced a few days before filled his mind.

Soon enough, he had reached Hillsboro and safety. One problem. His mom had left some important files back home. Zach turned around by himself, and with the fires closing in less than a mile away, he “strapped on his big boy pants” and set off back home.

When Zach returned home, he saw an orange glow from over the hill. Fires. Terror filled him.

“When I left, I didn’t think I was ever going to see my house again,” he said. But he accepted that. As long as everyone was OK, he would be OK too.

A short while later, my phone started to buzz. It was Zach. The man had literally seen the flames of hell racing toward him, but he wanted to make sure I was OK.

It was exactly what I needed. I talked to him for a little under an hour.

Talking to Zach helped me. It helped him. But mostly, it showed us both what was important, as we both processed through the possibility of losing our childhood homes: the memories made there, the fun times. It could all be gone. Zach helped me get past that thinking.

“[I wasn’t] concerned with the stuff inside the house,” Zach told me. “What matters is the memories that were made inside the house.”

Once he knew that both his family and his friends were safe, he was able to relax and calm down.

Zach is 100% in the right here. A lot is going on in our lives. So much so that we don’t admit to ourselves how stressful it really is. School. Work. Covid-19. Wildfires. Political tensions.

It seems every facet of life right now has something that we can freeze in fear over. The way I see it, we can approach that one of two ways.

We can come at problems like Antonio: panicked, scared, and not ready to admit that life sucks. Or we look at it like Zach, knowing that we can always step outside the mayhem, pull up our big boy pants and see the bigger picture.

Antonio Arredondo is a junior journalism major at George Fox University. Follow him on Twitter @noschoolproject.

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