Elijah, 4, plays atop some boulders in a grassy area outside the Oregon Convention Center while his grandfather, Matt Fujiyoshi, takes photos with his cellphone. The family had to evacuate their home during wildfires. (Pamplin Media Group)
Think the calamitous, cascading crises of 2020 have been tough on adults?
Imagine what they’ve been like for adolescents.
You have to wear a mask when you go play. Your mom and dad are talking about things like layoffs, and furloughs, and recession, and even if you don’t understand what all that means, you can tell it isn’t anything good. People are shouting at each other in the streets. There’s no shopping for lunch boxes and Crayons this summer, and you just don’t know if you and your friends will ever be in the classroom together again.
Oh, and they just evacuated your neighborhood.
Through their eyes
Matt Fujiyoshi stepped outside the Oregon Convention Center Friday, Sept. 11, with his 4-year-old grandson, Elijah. The convention center had turned into an American Red Cross shelter for fire evacuees the day before, after the first designated evacuation center, Clackamas Community College, was itself endangered by fast-moving fires.
The Oregon Convention Center offered evacuees cots to sleep on and three meals per day.
Fujiyoshi's wife tried to nap in their van nearby in the parking lot. The family evacuated Oregon City with their nanny, two dogs and a cat.
“I think he’s a little nervous from being in this place,” Fujiyoshi said, looking down at the 4-year-old in an orange onesie.
“I try to offer him hope. He keeps saying he wants to go home and we have to tell him, ‘We can’t. We can’t go home right now’ and he doesn’t understand.”
Fujiyoshi escorted Elijah over to a grassy area with boulders for Elijah to climb, as they waited for the day to pass.
Isabella Manselle is a seventh-grader at North Clackamas Christian School. She lives in Colton off Unger Road. Her family was forced to evacuate around 1 a.m. Tuesday, Sept. 8, due to the Unger fire.
Normally, at this time of the year, Isabella would be getting back-to-school supplies, hanging out at her grandma’s house or going to band practice.
Instead, along with her parents and little brother, Isaiah, she was staying at her other grandparents’ house in Oak Grove after awaking to evacuate their Colton home in the middle of the night.
“It’s kind of freaky because, when you think about it, there’s a lot of people that are going to lose their homes probably,” Isabella said. “But I like to stay an optimist, so I like to be hopeful — just hope for the best, pray a lot.”
She added, “I hope that by the time we come home at least a little bit of the house is left.”
Only days later did they discover that their house had been spared by the wildfires.
She described what the evacuation looked like from the eyes of a seventh-grader:
I’m in bed; I’m pretty comfortable. And all of a sudden, I wake up and my mom’s saying, ‘We have to evacuate. Everybody grab your stuff,’” Isabella said. “So I grab some of my special things. I grab my wallet first and my masks. Wallet first because, I mean, I’ve been saving up since like last year — birthday money, sometimes for doing yardwork, also some money from Christmas. So I grab my money, I grab some clothes, I grab my favorite stuffed animal, which I’m still attached to, and then I go to my brother’s room and we’re grabbing the DS and the Nintendo Switch because they’re expensive.”
It wasn’t until they got to the car that she remembered Frank, the family’s golden retriever. But not to worry; the dog was in the car waiting.
Isaiah, her fifth-grade brother, recalled the evacuation as well.
“It was really scary because I could hear fire trucks and police cars and all these flashing lights and all this smoke everywhere. It was like a scene from a movie,” Isaiah said. “Right when we got everything out of the van and Jeep, my dad said he was going to go back again to get stuff. It really scared me, and I kept begging him not to go. But then he was telling me all the things he needed that weren’t replaceable.”
The family made it out safe. But the fear traveled with them.
“I was scared. …It was really hard for me to sleep since my parents were gone and not there while I was there,” Isaiah recalled. “Then when I wake up, my parents are sleeping in the guest room, my sister’s sleeping on a massage table, and I’m sleeping in the fort.”
The immediate crisis was past. But, as with everything this spring and summer, the danger looms. “Even at my grandma and grandpa’s house where I’m staying, I look out the window, and there’s like all this smoke everywhere,” Isaiah said, “and it really scares me.”
Adults: anchors amid stormy seas
The nightmare of 2020 hasn’t been an easy ride for anyone. But as wildfire evacuations entered the already potent mix of pandemic and political strife, experts say children are at acute risk for experiencing traumatic stress.
Dr. Ajit Jetmalani, director of the division of child and adolescent psychiatry for Oregon Health & Science University, said children will naturally look to their parents for support and emotional cues about how to react.
“If a child has been exposed to a traumatic experience — or any human being — the most immediate need is for safety,” he told the Pamplin Media Group.
It will be up to parents to model the right behavior. A false sense of bravado doesn’t help anyone, and could mislead a child regarding the reality of serious situations. At the same time, parents need to regulate their emotions and provide an anchor amid stormy seas.
It doesn’t have to be a grand gesture: “Just taking a really deep breath, taking the time to look the child in the eyes and give them the reassurance that you’re going to get through this together” could be enough, he said.
Offer the child opportunities to discuss their emotions at their own pace, he advised.
Following a disaster, most people shake off feelings of despair and hopelessness after six to eight months — but the COVID-19 pandemic is different, because the situation is still unfolding, the future is unknown and socio-economic fallout persists.
Signs that a young person is experiencing serious depression or anxiety include loss of normal functioning or basic care skills, anger, apathy, or regressing to childhood behaviors such as bed-wetting or extreme clinginess.
“Before the fires, we were seeing a higher rate of crisis in August than ever before,” said Jetmalani, who also serves as a senior adviser for the Oregon Health Authority’s COVID-19 response. “Not being together in person has been, for some teens, just a devastating experience.”
Santiam Elementary School on Sunday, September 20. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)
Those concerns weigh heavy on Todd Miller, superintendent of the Santiam Canyon School District, based in Mill City, Oregon.
Their 600 students were preparing to return to school online when the Beachie Creek Fire swept down the canyon, forcing thousands of families to flee.
Before the fire, Miller said students were struggling with months of isolation. Now, they’re spread among relatives in Oregon, Washington, Idaho and California, fleeing heavy smoke or seeking more stable housing. Many still don’t know if they have a home to return to, he said, and some are living in cars.
“Every one of the students in our district has just gone through a traumatic event, whether their home is gone or their home still stands,” he said. “The landscape up there is different. It’s like a different planet. It’s ash, smoke and twisted metal for just blocks and blocks.”
The problems can be more than just emotional.
The American Lung Association is advising residents of Oregon and Washington to exercise precautions in order to limit respiratory damage. Smoke and ash can damage lungs and can heighten the symptoms of pre-existing health conditions. Chronic lung-disease patients, the elderly, children, pregnant women and those who work outdoors are especially vulnerable.
And children may be the most vulnerable of the bunch. That’s because their lungs are still developing and they breathe in more air for their size than adults.
Social distancing during a pandemic has strained most health care systems. But Jetmalani said the rise of tele-health services has allowed OHSU and other area hospitals to serve more patients, not fewer, compared with pre-pandemic times. Yet the most vulnerable populations often face language barriers and technology gaps preventing access.
“I can't emphasize enough the parents’ role in managing their own emotions before they reach out to their kids,” said Dr. Jetmalani, “either by getting professional help or support from someone going through the same thing.”
For resources, visit the National Child Traumatic Stress Network website or check with a local primary care provider.
Listening and talking help; and also unicorns
Robyn and Jonathan Liu were back safe in their Southeast Portland home after having to evacuate on Thursday, Sept. 10, as the neighboring structure near Stark Street and 16th Avenue burned down.
The Lius got lucky. The flames that scorched the property next door just missed their home, leaving only blistered paint to worry about.
But the fire and the evacuation came atop a spring and a summer of unsettling situations.
Mika is the youngest of the Lius' three children. On top of the slog of COVID-19 that has transformed their lives and left their 16-year-old uncertain about whether she’ll ever return to school, or go to college next year, their home is just blocks from Revolution Hall. Earlier this summer, the venue was chock full of Black Lives Matter protests, including clashes between police and protesters that garnered international media attention.
The Lius haven’t ignored the social unrest happening in Portland, and have done their best to explain the racist underpinnings fueling the movement to their kids.
“There’s 10 years between our oldest and youngest,” Robyn Liu said. “Obviously, it’s pretty different and they all have different personalities and ways of approaching the world.”
She said that, when the protests were blocks from their doorstep, there was a positive vibe, which helped. “We'd go sit on the porch and watch the people go by. The school across the street had a little march for the kids,” she said.
Mika’s voice chimed in. “It makes me proud that I walked around a bunch of blocks,” the 7-year-old said.
"Why are people protesting?” Liu remembers her daughter asking. “I said, ‘well, there are some people who don’t treat Black people very nicely,’ and she looked at me and rolled her eyes and said, ‘Still?’”
Then came the evacuation.
After the ordeal, Robyn and Mika walked over to Buckman Elementary School, where a school counselor saved the day.
Robyn Liu said the school’s librarian invited them to come use a large, empty room for Mika’s remote learning class that day, having seen the fire.
“After class, Mika went to say Hi to Miss Jess, the school counselor,” Liu wrote in a social media post. The counselor introduced Mika to Skittles, a unicorn who lives at the school. “Miss Jess explained that Skittles wanted to come home with Mika and stay with her other toys, but, ‘the only thing to know was that Skittles really hates a messy bedroom.’”
The gesture, small as it was, meant the world.
“When you're 7 and your neighbor's house is on fire and your parents and big sisters are scared and you have to go sit outside in someone else's yard in your pajamas before you even have breakfast, you aren't necessarily going to feel great about your day,” Robyn Liu wrote. “But, if you're lucky enough to have a Miss Jess in your life, maybe you come bounding home full of friendship, stories and purpose. You spend the next hour or two until lunchtime cleaning up your space and making it welcoming. You give extra hugs to a lonely unicorn. And things feel pretty OK.”
Pamplin Media Group writers Dana Haynes, Zane Spaulding, Courtney Vaughn and Kristen Wohlers contributed to this article. Salem Reporter writer Rachel Alexander contributed reporting on the Santiam Canyon.
NOTE: This story is published with the permission of Pamplin Media Group as part of a collaborative of news organizations in Oregon sharing news content. Salem Reporter is part of the arrangement.