A Track becomes a refuge for athletes as well as a community
I work with some amazing people through the work I do at Portland Track and IncubatorU. I shared the story in an earlier blog about a series of world class track meets we put on earlier this summer and one of them was in a mystical place nestled in the cascade mountains along the McKenzie River between Eugene Oregon and Bend Oregon. The McKenzie River Community Track is truly a track and field of dreams nestled in the forest.
We held our second of five meets in this undisclosed location on July 17th to keep the athletes safe and away from crowds but give them the opportunity to race.
This was the Big Friendly 2 that was a refuge to these world class athletes that had their seasons disappear with the COVID19 Pandemic.
Our team was in dire need of a track and through multiple channels we were able to talk with the board of directors at the McKenzie River Community Track about hosting a meet at this location. It was an amazing atmosphere and we were confident we would not have crowds gathering around challenging the public gathering restrictions for the State of Oregon. The meet went off without any issues, a few world leading times were produced and the athletes departed as the stars came out in the clear mountain skies.
Less than 2 months later after a fantastic summer of warm weather a freak windstorm with winds up to 50 miles per hour around the state changed all of that. The evening of September 9th small forest fires exploded and electric power lines snapped igniting the worst fires in the history of the state.
Oregon had an amazingly dry and sunny summer. This was great for early track meets and outdoor activities to continue social distancing but it became problematic for the forests in the Cascades that had gathered a great deal of ladder fuel.
As soon as we heard about the fires in Blue River our concern for the team we worked with at McKenzie River Community Track and their families was top of mind. Jeff Merrill and I reached out to the team that helped us put on the meet as well as the Jeff Sherman who was the original visionary to create this beautiful track.
Thankfully we heard that everyone was safe but everyone was impacted by a friend or family member that either lost their home or business and we are still waiting to hear of anybody that lost their loved ones.
We heard from the team that the track was a refuge of safety for many families that did not get evacuated down toward Eugene in time. They drove from their homes as they escaped the fire and onto the Track and safely in the middle of the field with the local fire department spraying the perimeter of the track facility ( which used to be an old lumber mill pond) to keep everyone safe.
The stories of the harrowing and dangerous situation started to emerge as we continued to check in with the team to make sure that they were safe.
I received photos from a local academic researcher who's husband retired from teaching at the McKenzie School( which survived the fire). The photos Sarah Hunter took show how close the fires came to the track and the small amount of damage that was done as cars and fire trucks kept everyone safe.
The same home stretch that was a refuge for athletes to compete safely this summer became a refuge for many local residents as the wild fires destroyed their homes and businesses.
How does a community recover from something as devastating as this natural disaster?
I feel that our Track and Field Community can perhaps help in small ways by bringing not only awareness, empathy, resources and the ability to be creative and to make small impacts through partnerships and events during the recovery and rebuilding process. I believe that if you create a framework to work within anything is possible. I have created that same framework with another track project that the McKenzie River Community Track inspired in another location of Oregon that is a refuge for firefighters and hosted the National Guard earlier this summer to build the foundation of the facility and not be there to protect it. The Oregon National Guard was out fighting these fires with the same heavy equipment they used to create a foundation for a community refuge in Maupin.