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Evacuee Story: Debbie and Buonsong

by Sierra Larson

“Tired.”

That’s how Debbie Marshall replied when I asked her how she was doing. She spent most of September 21 going through her storage unit in Eugene, Oregon, trying to get things organized. She and her partner of 13 years, Buonsong, have only been renting their rural home off McKenzie Highway near Belknap Springs for a few months. They haven’t yet had a chance to move the rest of their things in because they were having vehicle troubles. Debbie’s brother recently came out to the property and repaired the vehicle, so when officials came out to their house and told them and their neighbors to evacuate, they had the transportation to do so.

Debbie, age 65, has chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD), a chronic inflammatory lung disease that affects breathing. Buongsong, age 81, also has trouble breathing. He has never been diagnosed with COPD, but Debbie suspects he has it as well.

Debbie’s neighbors, Tara and Vanessa, don’t have a vehicle of their own, so she and Buonsong offered to give them a ride into Eugene. Debbie explained that Tara is extremely intelligent, but has a lot of mental health problems and doesn’t like to be around a lot of people. Tara was also worried about their fifty chickens. Vanessa was reluctant to leave without Tara. “I kept telling them, ‘Maybe we should go into town. We don’t want to be the last ones there and not get any help,'” Debbie recounted.

After a few days, Debbie was able to convince her neighbors to evacuate. They got as far as Sisters, 117 miles (about 185 km) outside of Eugene before Tara insisted on going back to their home. They had to go back by an alternate route because by then, roads were starting to close. “Forty to fifty miles here, forty to fifty miles there,” Debbie said. “Feel like you’re lost the whole way because you’ve never been there.”

This isn’t Debbie and Buonsong’s first experience with feeling lost. Ten years ago, Buonsong got lost in the forest while out picking mushrooms. Debbie was nearly out of her mind with worry, but insisted on helping with the search, even if it meant coming across his dead body. Buonson’s son Pon found him the next day. Pon came walking out of the forest and told Debbie, “He go too far. He got lost. Behind me, he walks on his own.”

As soon as Debbie saw Buonsong exit the forest, she told him, “What did I tell you? I told you before you left, don’t get lost!” She laughed as she told me this. “Pretty hard not to love him, you know? It really is.”

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Picking mushrooms is an integral part of Debbie and Buonsong’s relationship. It’s how they met, in fact. They know that going out into the Oregon forest has its risks, getting lost being one of them. Debbie told me about her friend’s son who got lost while picking mushrooms five years ago. She and Buonsong helped look for him. When the search party found him, they had to bring him out on a gurney. His hands, feet, and face had turned black. “I guess frostbite got him,” Debbie explained. His family cremated him, and Debbie, being a friend of the family, was in attendance at the cremation. She worries that’s how those who refused to evacuate will end up.

Debbie and Buonsong didn’t get lost during their process of evacuation, but dealing with the disaster relief coordinators left them feeling just as lost as ever. They stayed their first two nights in Eugene with Debbie’s daughter, who is a resident in a treatment facility. They originally had only planned on staying with her daughter for the first night, but when they went to the Lane County Fairgrounds to speak to Red Cross volunteers about finding shelter, they told them they didn’t have anything for them. They slept on the couches at the treatment facility for another night.

Debbie doesn’t have any hard feelings towards to disaster management volunteers. “We stayed two nights with them instead of one because we didn’t get shelter,” she told me. “By the time we did get here, take what you can get, you know? If they tell you to sleep in the car, you sleep in the car.”

But when Jake Brown, founder of Bare Sole Project, heard that this elderly couple with medical problems was without shelter, he took matters into his own hands. He had been sleeping on the floor of his own hotel room, keeping the bed clean for just such a special scenario. Jake turned his hotel room over to Debbie and Buonsong until the Red Cross could get them into one of the hotel rooms they had booked up. A volunteer brought them to what had been Jake’s room and asked them what else she could do for them.

Debbie told her, “I really want a banana, but I can live without.”

Not only did she come back with a banana, but with other groceries as well. Debbie was blown away by the generosity. “it’s been so hard. I never really reach out an ask anybody for help. I don’t want to feel like I’m begging anybody.”

It took a few days, but the Red Cross did eventually get them a room at the Red Lion Motel. Debbie expects they will be there for a few weeks before a housing coordinator can find them something long term. When I spoke with her on September 21, she had not had a chance to check with the housing coordinator for an update or check on the status of the property she and Buonsong evacuated from. They have not heard from Tara and Vanessa since they returned them to their home. Debbie is worried about them, and even though she did everything she could for them, she wishes she could have done more.

“It’s hard not to care,” she told me. “I’ll always try to make sure everybody’s ok. I see people out here in front of McDonalds, sleeping in front of curbs. Is there something I need to do for these people? My mom used to say, ‘Debbie, think about yourself. Don’t think about everybody else.’ How do you do that?”

Like Debbie, Bare Sole Project doesn’t know how not to care, and will continue asking “Is there something I need to do for these people?” If you are in need of immediate disaster relief from the Holiday Farm Fire, please submit a request for assistance on our home page.

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