They called it “Noah’s Ark,” a small building on the Clackamas County Fairgrounds, stuffed with dogs, cats, turtles, a few people on cots, a rabbit, a dove, and a handicapped duck.
Noah had it easier, though — he had only two of each.
“We had over 1,400 animals at one point,” recalls Kit Vandenbrouke, a member of the all-volunteer Clackamas County Sheriff’s Posse — a critical part of the annual county fair — as well as the impromptu one that was staged there earlier this month as wildfires forced thousands to flee their homes, with all manner of pets and livestock in tow.
“Goats, turkeys, there are pheasants in that barn over there,” says Drew McCausland, standing beyond the “red gate” at the fairgrounds Saturday evening.
We briefly step aside as a pickup truck rolls by, its bed loaded with three boys and 13 ducks — all bidding loud farewells.
McCausland, an ironworker and welder by trade, wears his trademark black cowboy hat, with a large feather of some variety stuck in the band. As far as I know, it came from one of the ducks.
“More cattle and horses than anything,” McCausland continues. “I swear, it’s been the most controlled chaos I’ve ever seen in my life.”
‘We Just Scrambled’
For McCausland, the crisis began early. The night the fires broke out in Clackamas County, Sept. 8, he and his girlfriend, Angie Zeise, got a call.
“Hey, so do you have any trailers available?” Zeise recalls with a laugh. It was neighbors, needing to move a dozen horses as flames spread rapidly westward and northward toward Molalla, Colton, Estacada and the surrounding rural communities.
“We just scrambled,” says McCausland. “I called the fairgrounds; I think it was around 10. I said, ‘Hey — we’re coming with horses. We’ve got 14 right now, and there’s probably going to be a lot more.’ And we’ve been basically going since then.”
For McCausland, for Zeise — who is the 4-H pygmy goat superintendent, like her mother was before her — for Vandenbrouke and so many of the other volunteers, the fairgrounds feels almost as familiar as their own stables.
“We’ve spent a lot of years down here,” she says. “When all this happened, you know, this was home. We all just pulled together. I don’t know day from night at this point, but we’ll be here till it’s over.”
I ask what has been the motivation that has kept them going, and McCausland seems almost confused by the question.
“People needed help,” he says with a small shrug. “I mean, we’ve all said it multiple times, but this is what we do. 4-H, rodeo — it’s all a big family. And it doesn’t matter if you’re blood or not, we’ll do what we can to help you.”
The Tail End
Considering that “Noah’s Ark” was on the premises, perhaps the night crew should not have been surprised by the floods.
It happened last Thursday, as the much-anticipated rains finally brought some relief to weary crews battling wildfires aided by unbearably dry conditions. But the charred, bare earth wasn’t ready to absorb the deluge, nor was the Clackamas County Fairgrounds’ stormwater system.
“I was in water up to my knees,” says Cole Carroll, then reconsiders. “Probably a couple of inches below my knees.”
“His boots are still drying,” chuckles McCausland, who had been called to Montana for work at that time.
The Rosebrook Arena, which housed 20-some horses, flooded, and it fell to Carroll and a few other volunteers to get them out.
“They weren’t having it,” Carroll says of the horses. “I got kicked. It still hurts.”
“Horning Hall flooded,” says Zeise. “It was nuts to see how much water came down. We thought we were at the tail end of it, but hey — you know what comes out of the tail end sometimes.”
‘Go Chase Piglets’
There have been moments of fun. Zeise recalls the time an evacuee approached her in the middle of the night, a look of bewilderment on her face.
“I know this is going to sound crazy, but I swear I just saw a chicken over there,” she recalls the woman saying.
It was not really a crazy proposition — this being Noah’s Ark and all — and sure enough, the two women soon found a bush that was shaking suspiciously.
“It squawks and takes off running,” she says.
It wasn’t a chicken, though; just one of the pheasants. They managed to catch it the next morning.
They may not have caught the piglets that escaped on another day, if not for Zeise’s 10-year-old daughter, Addison Hettinger.
“She was the only that could catch them,” she says. “If you ever need exercise — go chase piglets.”
That wasn’t all Addison was up to, either. She also cleaned bathrooms, shoveled stalls, took the garbage out.
“She’s been working her buns off,” says her mom.
“Hardest-working 10-year-old I know,” adds McCausland.
‘It Takes a Village’
Vandenbrouke joined the volunteer Sheriff’s Posse in 2011. Her husband, Wim, is the captain.
“We wanted to do search and rescue, as a way to be able to give back to our communities,” Kit explains. “And to be able to be on horseback at the same time was sort of the icing on the cake.”
The posse rides patrol at the Molalla Buckaroo, Clackamas County Fair and Canby Rodeo. They also help with Shop With a Cop and provide additional security at Clackamas Town Center during the Christmas season.
One of the highlights each year is their participation in the annual Rose Parade through Portland. One of the festival’s equestrian awards for showmanship is named in honor of a longtime Posse member, Vern Hulit.
They meet in Clackamas Hall, a building they renovated for the fairgrounds, which houses their banner and many awards. They train just over yonder, in Ely Arena.
When the wildfires broke out, Kit Vandebrouke moved to the Clackamas County Fairgrounds. Not because she needed to evacuate — but so she could be there to help everyone else who did.
“I felt very fortunate to be able to make a connection with the owners and help them feel relaxed and calm about what was going on,” she says. “You know, they were coming in with tears, the unknown factor of whether they were going to have a house to go back to. We felt like we helped them keep it together.”
Vandenbrouke herself becomes emotional looking back on the experience.
“It’s an incredible feeling, being able to help my neighbors and the people of the area,” she says. “We were in level 2 and my house was evacuated also, but I couldn’t imagine what some of these other people were going through.”
She is quick to point to the other members of the posse, the “night crew” (McCausland, Zeise, Carroll and others) and all the other volunteers, including John and Sally West — and their whole family — and Jason Terry, who fled Colton with six family members and six dogs, then came to the fairgrounds looking to lend a hand.
“I absolutely could not have done it without them,” she says. “It takes a village, and they were my rock. They all made me look good.”
‘Made It Feel Like Fair’
The volunteers’ labor was invaluable, Executive Director Laurie Bothwell says.
“They did everything I couldn’t do at this time,” Bothwell says. “They’ve been here, sun-up to sundown, ever since this started.”
They put together panels and built pens. They fed, cared for and cleaned up after hundreds of animals for over two weeks.
They provided critical security (some of the horses and other prized livestock that were given emergency shelter at the fairgrounds were worth tens of thousands of dollars) and ensured nothing left the property except under the care of its registered owner.
They received people from well beyond the Canby area. They came from as far away as Vernonia, Astoria, even Prineville.
They were pretty well taken care of themselves, as donations of food, water, blankets and other critical supplies rained in from Canby and across the area. Voodoo Doughnut sent 1,200 doughnuts. Two ladies from Yaya’s Kitchen in Sublimity brought hot, homemade meals almost every night.
They, well. They put on the Clackamas County Fair — just a few weeks later than we expected.
“It wasn’t really the fair everybody was looking for, but that’s definitely what it was,” McCausland admits.
Even the fair director agrees.
“What I loved best was when we could hear the sounds of the animals of the animals in Ely,” Bothwell says.
She pauses for a second to control her emotions, then adds, “That’s what made it feel like fair for me.”