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Wildfires put Oregonians to the test

This year has tested everything. Our relationships and livelihoods as the coronavirus pandemic brought an economic and social shutdown. Our faith in institutions as the police killing of George Floyd laid bare for many the racist practices embedded throughout our society. Even our ability to voice our opinions has taken a hit as the clashing of ideas has more frequently turned into a clashing of fists and bodies.

And now come the wildfires.

With devastating speed and power, dozens of fires are racing across the state, leveling towns, including Detroit, Phoenix and Talent. At least four Oregonians have been killed. Untold numbers of families have lost their homes — a loss made even more acute by a pandemic in which home was the only safe place to be. Oregonians from the southern border to outside Portland have fled to shelters or to stay with friends and relatives, waiting out the fires to see what — if anything — has been spared.

The loss is staggering. The stories of those killed and the worry for those still missing are heartbreaking. And the fires are continuing to burn.

With unfathomable destruction unfolding around us, it’s easy to lose hope. There is no glossing over the severity of damage, physically, emotionally and financially to individuals and the state as a whole. Recovering from these fires, on top of everything else that this year has thrown at us, will take incredible and sustained effort.

But it will also require the kind of statewide unity that Oregon has failed to show in recent years.

It’s not just at the leadership level, where self-serving partisanship at times takes precedence over good policy. Democrats in the Legislature have used their majority power to sideline the minority at times, removing Republicans from key committee positions and even passing a bill that disadvantages rural Oregonians in challenging legislation by referendum. Meanwhile, Republicans have used their minority to deny Democrats a quorum with four legislative walkouts in the past two regular sessions.

It’s at the community level as well. The bitterness on social media with which progressives and conservatives attack one another has translated into physical attacks in protests and counterprotests in the streets, resulting in the death of one demonstrator and the fatal police shooting of his accused killer.

The economic and cultural differences driving an urban-rural divide have only intensified with a widening prosperity gap and changing population demographics. That split shows up in election after election, as Oregon — driven by the population-heavy Portland metro area — votes in blue leaders and ballot measures despite the vast majority of counties outside the urban core voting red.

The deep suspicion between rural and metro areas is showing up now in this crisis as well, as unfounded rumors run rampant that anti-fascists — generally associated with Portland and progressive strongholds — are setting these wildfires. Such accusations are dangerously reckless and continue to spread despite the emphatic statements by numerous law enforcement agencies that there is nothing to such rumors. When fears and anguish are running so high, offering a false and easy scapegoat is a recipe for deepening the tragedy of this already horrific crisis.

At the same time, we know Oregonians respond in a crisis. We see cities and individuals pulling together, setting up shelters around the state for those evacuating from fire-ravaged communities and volunteering in such numbers that agencies are turning them away. Others are donating money to nonprofits or offering their time and talent to cheer children at shelters. The gratitude for both firefighters battling the flames and law enforcement officers who, in some cases, are going door to door to get residents to evacuate shows a recognition for the critical role that such agencies can play in maintaining safety and calm.

That focus on working together to confront a bigger challenge must drive our leaders and our communities’ next steps. While it’s unrealistic to expect that urban-rural divide to disappear, Oregonians should seek to move forward based on an understanding that the needs and values of one area may be entirely different from the needs and values of another.

It has become clear that this year’s crises aren’t just a test of our relationships or institutions. They are a test of our humanity and whether we can rise above our differences to connect with one another regardless of belief or background. While people and communities will rebuild — we always do — rebuilding better must mean rebuilding together.