7 months after wildfires, camp for Oregonians with disabilities still waiting on cleanup

Upward Bound Camp in Gates is waiting on crews contracted by FEMA to clear the property. If that doesn’t happen soon, the camp may not open this summer.

GATES, Oregon — It’s been seven months since historic wildfires ravaged the Santiam Canyon.

In the small mountain town of Gates, a camp for Oregonians with disabilities was almost completely wiped out. Today, the Upward Bound Camp property at the old Gates Elementary School looks much like it did seven months ago immediately after the fire.

“Sometimes I wake up and look out the window, and I just see this and I go, ‘wow.’ You know, it’s time to move on this,” Upward Bound Executive Director Diane Turnbull said.

The haven for Oregonians with disabilities is needed even more after this last year.

“I get calls from campers every week, ‘Are we going to have camp?’ And all I can say is, ‘I hope!’ Because they are so ready to get out of the house,” Turnbull said.

That includes campers like Andrew Stoffel.

“Man, the mountains are awesome, quiet and peaceful,” Stoffel said. “It was hard on both us and the staff.”

In September, the Beachie Creek Fire wiped out most of the camp, scarring trees, burning buildings, warping metal and charring memories.

RELATED: ‘We’re going to make sure it stays’: Camp for Oregonians with disabilities mostly destroyed in Beachie Creek Fire

“I couldn’t wrap my head around what just happened,” Stoffel said. “It feels uncomfortable and anger and sad.”

The flames only spared the historic Gates Elementary School, two pavilions on the property and Turnbull’s home. The school building houses the camp’s kitchen and bathrooms, but still lacks power.

“All of this debris has got to be cleaned off. This is not safe for our campers, many of whom are physically challenged in a way they can easily fall down if something is under foot,” Turnbull told KGW.

“Someone just needs to clean it up and make sure it’s safe before I can go back up again,” Stoffel added.

The debris from the fire and metal from the buildings have been sitting there so long that they’ve become orange with rust. But on the other side of the property, you can see the color of renewal; Turnbull hopes to put campers in tents on the green grass this summer.

But, like many of her neighbors, it’s out of her hands at this time. Camp this summer depends on when Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) crews, contracted by FEMA, clear the property.

Turnbull consistently communicates with FEMA – even more so the past few weeks. But since completing step one of the wildfire cleanup process months ago – removing hazardous materials – contractors have yet to move on to step two, clearing ash, trees and debris.

RELATED: Oregon reaches settlements with four hotels over price gouging during historic wildfires

“We’re at the mercy of contractors and FEMA and all that,” Turnbull said. “It’s very interesting to me the amount of information gathering that happens.”

“If we don’t get this cleaned by May and I want to have camp in June, it’s not going to happen,” Turnbull added.

“This is what they’ve been able to hold onto for so long,” Stoffel’s dad Aaron said. “Not being able to do it this year, especially because they couldn’t do it last year, that would be hard. That would be pretty brutal.”

FEMA says contractors are at least six months out from removing trees, ash and debris from all the burned properties in the Santiam Canyon.

“We’re not the only ones,” Gates Mayor Ron Carmickle said. “You have a lot of hazards. A lot of ODOT’s focus has been on – at this point it seems – is trees.”

Rather than wait, Carmickle says dozens of survivors, himself included, are taking it into their own hands. They’re clearing properties themselves or paying private contractors, whether they have insurance or not.

“It’s extremely frustrating for the people who really want to try to get rebuilt because a lot of people they’re relying on FEMA – ODOT – to come in and get their places cleaned up so they can begin rebuilding,” Carmickle said.

“It’s not just about getting the cleanup. It’s about getting the people who live here back into life, back to work,” Turnbull added.

Turnbull is considering possibly using insurance money to hire private contractors for the camp cleanup.

While she waits on FEMA, she stays encouraged by signs of hope: flowers blooming amid the rubble, staff sawing trees, Ecola Bible College students clearing trees, volunteers planting flowers and native plants, and even campers coming up to clear their haven for summer fun.

RELATED: Wildfire-ravaged community of Gates receives some relief from Marion County

“We’ve had so many blessings between when the fires happened and now,” Turnbull said. “To walk around the property and see these signs of coming back, even though it’s surrounded by this.”

“This is sad, but most campers are like, ‘that’s going to get fixed. I love it here!’” Turnbull added.

Upward Bound received a grant from FEMA for more than $300,000 to help remodel the school building and get it on the historic register. In addition, an architecture firm committed to drawing up their master plan for free.