Pantry volunteer Jack sorts food at the Mill City/Gates Community Assistance Center.

When wildfires tore through Santiam Canyon last September, incinerating huge swaths of the landscape and destroying hundreds of homes and businesses, thousands of displaced residents were scattered near and far to seek shelter in hotels or under the roofs of friends and relatives.

Nearly six months later, some residents are slowly returning to the canyon for what will be an extensive recovery effort. As with the forests that were burned, the canyon’s communities are in for a long period of regrowth.

According to Susann, a pantry coordinator at the Mill City/Gates Community Assistance Center, the challenges returning residents face will have a profound effect on how the canyon recovers from the fires. Making it easier for people to obtain food is key to helping restore her community, she says.

“I feel like the food we provide people right now hopefully is enough to keep them feeling positive about coming back,” Susann said, “because if not I can see the little towns just kind of becoming ghost towns, which is very, very sad.”

A big part of the job now is conducting outreach, from spreading the word about the food bank on social media to posting flyers at city hall, the post office and other places returning residents are likely to pass through. When FEMA trailers were installed in Mill City earlier this year to house displaced residents, pantry volunteers were quick to let them know that food is available.

Pantry coordinator Susann says access to fresh food is crucial to her community’s recovery from wildfires.

“We have put out the word to them to let them know, ‘come to the food bank and we’ll try to get stuff into your pantry so you have food to begin with,’” Susann said.

Because refrigerator and freezer capacity is limited for those in FEMA trailers and the many others who are living in campers and travel trailers, pantry volunteers are encouraging guests to visit more frequently to restock on fresh items like milk, produce, eggs and meat. To help the pantry keep those essentials in stock, Marion Polk Food Share doubled the frequency of deliveries to Mill City in the wake of the fires.

“Getting a delivery every week allows us to have more things available to people and a wider selection, which to me is wonderful,” Susann said. “Being able to say to people, ‘come on in more than once a month if you need to restock your trailer.’ We haven’t been able to do that in the past. That’s made a huge difference, as far as I’m concerned.”

Our community responded swiftly to the wildfires with an overwhelming outpouring of support. That support made it possible for the Food Share to not only provide food for evacuees in the immediate aftermath of the fires, but to continue assisting our partner agencies in Santiam Canyon as they help their communities recover.

We are grateful for the generosity of Northwest Farm Credit Services, OCCU Foundation, South Salem Ace Hardware customer community, Subaru of America, Weyerhaeuser Company Foundation and community members like you. Thanks to you, returning Santiam Canyon residents are rebuilding their communities and their lives without having to worry about putting food on the table.