Letter from the President Lisa Gourley: Visiting Chapters Impacted By Wildfires

Dear OSEA Members,

My heart is heavy as I write this. Our beloved state and union members are still recovering from the wildfires that swept across the state in September. Burning more than a million acres, the fires not only devastated our forests, recreation areas and infrastructure, but decimated many of our communities. Homes, farms, businesses and schools have been lost. These fires put more than 500,000 Oregonians under some level of evacuation notice, among them thousands of OSEA members as well as our families, aging parents, neighbors, friends and coworkers. As I write this, I know that many are currently residing in emergency shelters after losing their homes. Most still don’t know how or when their communities and the children they serve will recover.

I recently had the chance to visit some of the communities that fared the worst. Christie Sanders and Marina McCambridge, president and vice president of Phoenix-Talent Chapter 96, showed me around their community in Southern Oregon. The devastation I saw took my breath away — so many homes were destroyed by the Almeda Fire. Eighty percent of the residents have been displaced. Ashes, twisted metal and empty foundations are all that remain of the homes that lined the streets. Homes that once held families, memories and prized belongings; homes that were once places of safety and security.

We found similar sights near the McKenzie River when Zone IV Director Sheila Waggoner and I visited the McKenzie School District, home to McKenzie Chapter 74. Homes have been lost and lives are in crisis. Our members in the area who have been able to stay in their homes have no power or phone service, and many are in need of basics like water, shelter, clean clothes and meals.

From Ashland to Oregon City, this trauma and devastation is touching the lives of members in four of OSEA’s seven Zones (II, III, IV and V). I know that many of our members are grieving right now, not only for their homes but for their communities and the lives they knew.

In these moments, we can feel overwhelmed. It might even be difficult to remember how to move forward — but we will find a way together. Please take care of yourself; only then will you have the greatest capacity to help your loved ones. OSEA is doing all we can to support members in need. As each area becomes safe to enter, we are reaching out to everyone we can.

All over Oregon, I’m seeing members step up to help their communities. Honestly, I’m not surprised — it’s in our DNA. Every OSEA member has pursued a career in public service, and every day you continue to show incredible kindness and generosity. I am humbled and inspired by those who have taken up volunteering at local shelters and donation centers, as well as all of you who are coordinating student and family outreach, checking on loved ones, neighbors and coworkers, donating supplies or organizing in so many ways to help students process what happened. You are truly my heroes.

Thank you for demonstrating solidarity in the face of yet another overwhelming challenge. As union members and community members, our unity is our strength. We will stand together and we will get through this together. Please reach out to your chapter officers or the OSEA State Office if you are in need of assistance — we are here for you.

With all softness of heart, let me remind you that it is OK not to feel OK right now. This has been an incredibly difficult year, with one catastrophe after another. I encourage you to take advantage of the free trauma counseling that is available to all OSEA members. It is confidential, and speaking with a trained counselor could help you process and heal. Access additional resources for times of crisis.

It is difficult to put into words how proud I am of our members and the work that you do, but I am grateful and honored to stand with you, today and every day. Please take care