By Megan McMorris
It’s a scene out of a nightmare: waking up in the middle of the night to discover a fire coming toward you. A neighbor pounding on the door, yelling for you to get out. That nightmare became reality for Ron and Sharon Ross in Otis, Oregon, at 1:15 am on September 8.
“We had no warning,” says Ron, 73, a welding technician and Vietnam Vet (Army, ’67-‘68) and wife Sharon, 74. With winds at 40 mph that night, the fire was quickly heading their way.
They had 30 minutes to grab what they could and go. As they rushed to gather their valuables: Gizmo the cat, computer, important files, contents of the safe – “There are so many things I wish I had thought to take,” says Ron, their growing concern was for their new kitten, Piper, who was getting skittish with all the sudden movements and started to hide.
That’s when the power went out. “Now I had to find flashlights and locate a black cat in a black room. Meanwhile Sharon’s arm is in a sling from recent surgery, so she could only use one arm to hold the flashlight,” he recalled.
Another wrinkle in their escape plan: Their truck was parked behind their brand-new RV barn, which operates with electric doors, now useless in the power outage.
“We’d only had the barn for a week, so I hadn’t yet opened it by hand,” he said. “So here I am, really putting all my weight into it to pull down that rope and I give it a rip, and it just went flying open so hard that I fell on my ass. At that point, I’m laughing because you gotta laugh.”
As the fire started coming down the mountain, though, he didn’t have much more time to laugh. As Sharon escaped in one of their two vehicles, Gizmo the Cat next to her, Ron stayed behind with his truck to search once more for Piper.
“She’s freaked out because we’re running all over the place and in the end I just couldn’t catch her,” he says, his voice cracking. “That’s rough to think about.”
Time was ticking, though, and he needed to go, but not before helping a neighbor in need. As he navigated the thick smoke while descending the mountain toward safety, he saw a figure walking toward the fire.
“The smoke was so thick at that point I could barely recognize him, but it was my neighbor walking toward his house, and I knew I had to get him there,” says Ron. He turned around and picked up his neighbor, escorting him to his house.
The Echo Mountain Fire ended up burning over 2,500 acres and destroyed 30 homes in Otis.
“There was nothing left, just grey ash,” Ron said. “You watch the news; you see people who have house fires and lost everything and you think, ‘Oh my, that’s gotta be terrible’ but you can’t imagine what it’s like. It’s like everything you’ve got going up in smoke which can never be replaced.”
While the couple has considered Otis their home for four years now, the Rosses have SE Portland roots going back generations. Ron moved to Portland from his native Illinois in 1960, while Sharon is a Portland native.
“My grandma grew up in that house,” he recalls of the Foster-Powell farmhouse that he bought in the mid-1980s where he recalls growing tomato plants and delivering them to neighbors in paper bags on their front porch.
He would bring his Los Angeles Raiders koozie to the local tavern to grab a Corona Light with his buddies and played in the local pool league.
“We’ve always loved outer SE, it was a good neighborhood for us that was like a small town for a long time – it was like family,” he said.
When he and Sharon looked toward retirement, though, they decided to head west to the tiny coastal town of Otis.
“We just like the area, we like the town; we like the coast,” he says. “You can leave your car unlocked at night. Kids can ride their bikes here at night, and it’s kind of like what I experienced in the 50s growing up, and what I experienced in SE Portland for a long time too,” says Ron.
The fire has only strengthened their new community.
“I’ve met more neighbors in the past couple weeks than I have in the four years we’ve been here,” he laughs. “And make no mistake, as soon as we’re able to, we will rebuild.”
Photo by Ron Ross