The situation at the Douglas County Fairgrounds may seem chaotic, with trailers full of people often hauling horses, cows, goat chickens and various other animals pulling in for shelter. Add to that the need for spacing and other requirements due to COVID-19, and it could be a recipe for disaster.
But this is something the county has been preparing for since the coronavirus first appeared in the area early this year, said Tamara Howell, a spokesperson for the Douglas County COVID-19 Response Team.
“A fire emergency during Covid is one of of the contingencies that we planned for,“ Howell said. “We knew we might have to deal with this kind of situation, so we have protocols in place.”
Those protocols include many of the same procedures that have become commonplace by now — mandatory masks, spacing, screening people as they enter the facility, routine hand-washing and cleaning of the facilities.
On Tuesday, local officials opened the Douglas County Fairgrounds as an emergency shelter. The county is working in conjunction with the Red Cross and Salvation Army to manage the site, Howell said.
The largest part of the shelter is intended to accommodate those evacuating fires in RVs or who have trailers or campers. There is also a portion of Douglas Hall where 20 cots have been set up for those fleeing fires who do not have campers and trailers, Howell said. The cots are spaced out and partitioned by draperies. There is a kitchen available to prepare limited meals, Howell said.
There are three other buildings available, each with space for about the same number of cots as the first building, she said.
Joel King, disaster program manager for the American Red Cross, said about a dozen people took advantage of the cots Wednesday night. King also said the Red Cross has placed about two dozen Douglas County residents fleeing the fires in hotels and is in the process of finding rooms for about another 50 people.
Howell said the fairgrounds also has 49 full hook-up sites for RVs, and another dozen or so electric-only sites near the museum. There is also additional space available for dry camping, although Howell said it’s difficult to determine an exact number of spaces available because of the varying size of trailers and campers.
“We will continue to take people and vehicles until the parking lots are full,” she said, adding that the county is working on securing additional evacuation locations should the need arise.
By Thursday morning the RV park was full, but there was still space available for dry camping and a few spots with electrical hookups, Howell said. The 90 stalls for horses and other large animals were full, but there remained room for small animals like rabbits, goats, pigs and chickens, she said.
The services are free but priority is being given to those under Level 2 or Level 3 evacuation orders, Howell said. “It’s mainly intended for those people that need it the most, people who have had to leave their homes,” she said.
Gates and buildings are open all night for residents that need to evacuate and/or bring animals, Howell said. Those seeking more information on space availability at the shelter should call the fairgrounds office at 541-440-4394.
The county has also set up a hotline for wildfire-related questions and other issues in an effort to lower the large volume of such calls that have been going to 911, which should be reserved for emergencies, Howell said.
People with non-emergency issues related to the wildfires should call the number the county has been using for coronavirus-related issues: 941-464-6550.
In addition to fielding questions connected to the wildfires, hotline operators will be able to let people who want to help know how they can, and help people who need assistance get it, Howell said.
“We set this up as a fire resource hotline so people will not be inundating 911,” she said. “We’ve had a number of people offering the use of their barns or other facilities for people who have livestock, as well as people who want to donate items but don’t know where to take them.”
The hotline will be staffed daily from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m., until further notice, Howell said.