It didn’t feel like the beginning of the longest week of their lives.
Chelsey Huff, 28, was relaxing at home in Oregon City with her husband, mother-in-law, two young sons and two dogs on Monday, Sept. 7. They had the day off for Labor Day. In the evening, the winds picked up, and the sky became a dark, hazy maroon. At that time, they didn’t know of any fires nearby. “We were just kind of oblivious, I know that sounds bad, but we just assumed that everything was fine,” Huff said.
When they woke up the next morning, the power was out. Huff, who works as the enrollment advisor for Portland State’s Criminology and Criminal Justice online program, emailed her boss from her phone, which still had cell service, letting her know she had to take the day off.
Then they sat around waiting for the power to come back on. Huff got a hold of her aunt, who works for the Oregon Department of Forestry. She told Huff that the situation was bad, and that they should think about evacuating as soon as possible.
“We thought she was crazy,” Huff said. “We were like, ‘we’re fine, we’re totally fine.’” But when she went outside to assess the skies, she saw three wildfires in the surrounding hills, slowly drawing nearer to her home.
“As soon as that happened, we were like, ‘oh my gosh, this is real,’” Huff said. Cell reception was mostly unavailable. The only way Huff could get a hold of others was by calling whenever she managed to find shaky service.
Eventually, Huff was able to contact extended family living in Gresham. Even though there wasn’t yet an evacuation notice, Huff decided to play it safe by taking her family to stay with them for the time being.
That afternoon, they gathered up some valuables and necessities and headed out, thinking they would be back home for dinner. But by the time they arrived in Gresham, the situation had gotten worse. Oregon City was under a stage three evacuation notice, and the fires were less than half a mile away from their home, where they had left many possessions, along with their nine chickens.
Their family’s home in Gresham was crowded and stressful. Huff and her husband slept on the floor. “We were so thankful that we had somebody to stay with, and they had space for us,” Huff said. But she also felt guilty; her family had friends from Estacada who also needed a place to stay because their house had already gone up in flames.
When the wildfires started, staff at the PSU University Place Hotel were under a lot of stress.
Sarah Bithell, the front desk manager, whose family lives in Estacada, had three siblings and their families who had to evacuate the area, as well as other family members who were under evacuation notice. “I love that area, so it has been extremely painful, scary and sad knowing that it was and is on fire,” Bithell said.
Caelan Jye “CJ” Fludd, 29, a front desk supervisor and a PSU undergraduate student studying Spanish and psychology, was also distressed. “Initially, when the fires and evacuations started happening, it was very stressful and a bit chaotic,” Fludd said. “We all have friends and family, in the PSU community and out, who live in the areas that were in danger. The natural reaction is to want to help, but there wasn’t really anything we could do…[I was] feeling a bit helpless.”
According to Fludd, PSU administrators and hotel management were trying to figure out a way to offer aid to those affected by the fires, and a temporary evacuation rate was put in place for displaced community members on Sept. 8.
Families and persons displaced by the fires started arriving at the hotel early on Sept. 10. That evening, hotel staff were looped into the final plan decided on by PSU administration and hotel management; All displaced PSU students, faculty and staff and their immediate families—including pets—could stay at the hotel for up to 14 days, free of charge: no fees and no deposit. A complimentary hot breakfast would also be provided each morning.
Hotel management was also in contact with Oregon Governor Kate Brown’s office and the Multnomah County Emergency Management office, both of which requested that the hotel accept additional displaced families in case shelters in Multnomah County reached capacity.
The hotel also had rooms set aside for Portland first responders, which had been reserved towards the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic for emergency workers, typically from Oregon Health and Science University, who didn’t want to return home in between shifts at the risk of infecting their families.
According to Antonio Recillas, general manager of the hotel, even with so many rooms set aside—over 100—the hotel was still offering rooms at regular rates, but that members of the PSU community would be given priority. “[The hotel] is going to prioritize PSU families first,” Recillas said, “so if someone comes from PSU and they need to stay here, we will take from another block of rooms, from either the governors or Multnomah County, to be able to give that room to the PSU family.”
“We would rather serve the community than make money, if that makes sense,” he said.
Appeya Galindo, a PSU alum, her husband and her son, Tyler Haskett, who will be attending PSU this fall as a freshman, had to evacuate their home in Colton, Oregon, where the Riverside fire was raging, on Tuesday, Sept. 8.
Over the next few days, Galindo and her family stayed with friends, family and at hotels, where they accrued over $1,300 in fees. “Our extended family and friends were able to help us with this, but it was not sustainable,” Galindo said. “We found ourselves constantly wondering what we were going to do next and where we would go.”
Additionally, Galindo’s husband is immunocompromised, which made finding refuge even more difficult amid the ongoing pandemic.
Galindo received an email from PSU University Communications on the morning of Sept. 11, informing the community that the University Place Hotel was open to those displaced by the fires. The news came like a much needed breath of fresh air.
“It is beyond words how grateful our family has been for all who have been able to help us through this, and for PSU and the amazing staff at University Place Hotel for taking us in during this difficult time,” Galindo said.
Chelsey Huff and her family awoke to the email from University Communications on Sept. 11, and they decided to jump on the opportunity. Huff was then resigned to the fact that her home and possessions were “just going to burn, and we couldn’t do anything about it.”
Huff and her family hadn’t been able to sleep the past few nights. “It’s hard already going through this, and then having two kids and not having your own space to just relax,” Huff said. “We were sleeping on the ground and everything like that. And so, when we got that email, I was like, I’m gonna call them, and I’m gonna see if they have anything.”
Huff spoke to Sarah Bithell, the front desk manager. Huff was struck by the compassion Bithell expressed over the phone. “She really took the time to be human and show concern, which like, that meant a lot because it was the most terrifying thing I’ve ever experienced.”
Bithell did what she could to get Huff everything she needed, which ended up being two rooms to accommodate the whole family, one of which had a sliding glass door to easily let the dogs outside.
“When you get here, we’ll hug each other and cry together,” Bithell said.
Shortly after the email from University Communications went out on the morning of Sept. 11, University Place Hotel staff were inundated with phone calls.
Joanna Isimbi, 25, a front desk agent and graduate student at PSU, was working the morning shift. She received an email from hotel management in the morning, informing her of the decision to house community members displaced by the wildfires. It also asked that hotel staff try to be as accommodating as possible.
After Bithell joined Isimbi a little after 10:00 a.m., things started getting hectic. “We were receiving phone calls, like, every second,” Isimbi said. “It was pretty intense. People were just saying thank you, you know, telling us their stories, how crazy it was to have to go to another place. It was pretty sad.”
CJ Fludd, the front desk supervisor, arrived later that day for the mid-shift. “It was very draining emotionally, having family after family come in, obviously exhausted and worried about their unsure future,” Fludd said. “There were instances you could see the parents were doing everything they could just to hold the tears back, staying strong for their children.”
In an email sent that evening to the general manager, Bithell wrote: “I have to share that I am beaming with pride in how my team has stepped up. We were busy non-stop since I arrived today…My team rocks!”
Huff and her family drove to the hotel on the night of Sept. 11, where they were able to check-in without any hassles; then, for the first time since they left their home on Sept. 7, they were able to enjoy a moment of peace.
While checking in, Bithell and Huff didn’t hug because of social distancing guidelines, which were being diligently followed by hotel staff despite the frantic circumstances.
“I checked in and they were so nice,” Huff said. “Usually, they make you put down a $50 deposit or something, which like, we have that, but [we were thinking] we might have to get a new house, and we didn’t know what was going on.”
The next morning, Huff and her family enjoyed the free, hot breakfast provided by the hotel, which also adhered to social distancing guidelines.
“There were no worries about social distancing,” Huff said. “That was really reassuring, especially because I have two little kids, and it’s like, not only am I not at my house, but we’re also currently in a pandemic.”
Bithell reached out to Huff that morning to connect her with various resources. She offered to get her in touch with a worker from one of the child-development service centers on campus, who was making sure that kids at the hotel had everything they needed, including games and toys.
“[Bithell] just kept going above and beyond just to make sure that we were okay,” Huff said. “It was just really, really touching.”
After breakfast, Huff and her family went to stay with their extended family in Gresham, and returned to sleep at the hotel at night. They continued this routine for the next four nights.
Appeya Galindo and her family, who arrived at the hotel on the morning of Sept. 11, were grateful to finally have a place to stay that was both inexpensive and followed social distancing guidelines.
“University Place Hotel has given us great comfort and peace of mind so that we are able to focus on repairing our home and helping to take care of our other friends and family who have also been affected by the fires,” Galindo said. “Our hearts are humbled by the outpour of love and dedication that surrounds us in our Colton, Estacada and Molalla communities as well as here in Portland.”
On Sept. 16, five days after they arrived at the hotel, Galindo learned that the area around her home in Colton, Oregon had gone down to a level two evacuation notice, and that her home had been spared by the fires. However, Galindo and her family decided to continue staying at the hotel because the extremely hazardous air quality which enveloped the West Coast had settled into their house.
For the next week, staff at the hotel were working long shifts back to back, helping family after family who, in many cases, had lost everything, or at the very least, were displaced for an indeterminate amount of time. But the overarching feeling among them was a feeling of gratitude for being able to offer assistance and sympathy at a time of catastrophe and uncertainty.
According to hotel manager Antonio Recillas, “We have our priorities where they need to be. People first. It’s not about money, it’s about relationships and safety, and we’ll figure out the rest, and that goes a long way…In the face of tragedies, there’s always something good that comes out of it, so we’re very blessed that we’re able to help.”
“Before Friday [Sept. 11], I had been struggling with feeling helpless,” Bithell said, “so it was extremely relieving and satisfying to be able to support our community so generously by facilitating safe shelter without the added worry of how to afford it.”
“I am very thankful that PSU and the University Place Hotel gave me the opportunity to help people who were displaced by the fires,” Fludd said. “It helped give me a stronger sense of purpose, and a sense of pride to be a part of PSU’s staff.”
“People kept thanking the hotel, the management, and it was a privilege to be able to tell people, ‘oh yes, you can actually stay here for free,’” Isimbi said. “It felt really good. It’s not like I’m telling them the fires will be gone or anything, but just telling them, ‘we have this place to stay, and you don’t have to think about fees or anything like that.”
PSU families occupied 91 rooms at the hotel by Sept. 14, according to Recillas.
Huff and her family were able to return home on Tuesday, Sept. 15, after the evacuation notice for Oregon City went down to a level one.
Their house was messy and covered in ash, but everything was spared, including all nine chickens that were left behind during the hurried evacuation seven days earlier. “We were so worried about them, but we came home and all nine of them are healthy and alive,” Huff said. “They’re stained yellow from the smoke, but they’re totally okay.”
The family got busy cleaning, which, because they had thought they would lose everything, became a blessed and thankful act. “[Our house] definitely wasn’t the cleanest, but I am more than happy to clean my house, because I have a house, you know?” Huff said.
Huff felt immense gratitude for the services the hotel was able to provide for her family when she reflected on the past week: “I can’t express how thankful I am to be a part of PSU, and the fact that they were just trying to do everything they could to be helping. I think that is what really stood out to me—that it didn’t feel just like a hotel and a business transaction. You could tell that they genuinely cared about us, and genuinely felt what we were feeling.”
More than anything, Huff said, it was that level of compassion, from the moment she called the hotel and spoke to Bithell on the phone to the moment she left, that stood out to her about the experience. “They just wanted to do anything they could to make us comfortable, even when everything was falling apart around us and there were so many uncertainties,” Huff said. “That was so important—the human connection.”
Galindo and her family were able to return home on Saturday, Sept. 19. The evacuation notice around their home in Colton was still at a level two, but the rains had cleared the air enough for them to comfortably return. They were hoping that that notice would go down to a level one soon—until then, they didn’t feel comfortable bringing their pet guinea pig back from a sitter, which made it difficult to fully settle in.
“Our home still smells like smoke, but we have been able to maintain air quality for the most part,” Galindo said. “This morning [Sept. 20] we woke up to some smoke outside, but it lifted by noon.”
“We are thankful that we still have a place to come home to and we are heartbroken for those who do not. They are all in our constant prayers,” she said.
Heidi Williams, the social media manager for PSU communications, received a direct message on Facebook from a woman named Emily Bourgo on Friday, Sept. 11. It read:
“I have no idea how my family is ever going to be able to thank you enough for your overwhelming kindness, compassion and generosity, offering PSU students within the evacuation zone, a place to stay temporarily. My daughter is a PSU student. We have been awake all night and all day, trying to find somewhere/anywhere to stay because the air within our home has gotten so thick and incredibly toxic from fire, which isn’t far from us. I can’t seem to stop crying, the stress, fear, etc., and now crying because we finally have somewhere to go! There are no words, there will never be the right words to express our deep gratitude. Thanks to PSU, we are scheduled to check in at the university hotel at 4pm. I wish I could hug whoever made this happen. Thank you.”
Bourgo, her daughter McKenna and their dog arrived at the hotel that day, where they met Sarah Bithell behind the front desk. Bithell, in an email to the hotel manager, Recillas, remarked how Bourgo and her daughter were in tears with gratitude when they arrived at the hotel. As she was checking them in, Bithell gave them warm cookies and their dog a treat, which overwhelmed Emily even more. “I wished I could hug her,” Bithell wrote.
After reading Emily’s Facebook message later that night, Bithell was herself overwhelmed with emotion.
“It wasn’t until I got home and read it aloud that I recognized how powerful Ms. Bourgo’s message was,” she wrote in an email to Recillas. “I have had a lot of meaningful guest experiences throughout my career in hospitality, but never more than now.”