PORTLAND, Ore.—Milly and Mike Pungercar, members of St. Alice Parish in Springfield, are among the approximately half-million Oregonians, or 10% of the state’s population, who by Sept. 11 had received an evacuation order or warning amid raging wildfires.
“I believe in prayer, and I believe in miracles; our state needs a miracle,” said 73-year-old Milly, who with her husband has been staying with friends in smoke-cloaked but thus far unharmed Springfield.
On Labor Day, the local utility company cut power to the Pungercars’ neighborhood, about eight miles east of Springfield, to prevent sparking new flames. By Sept. 11, numerous blazes across Oregon had burned more than a million acres and nearly incinerated whole towns.
The Pungercars noticed smoke late on Labor Day but presumed it was blown in from far-away fires. They had not yet learned that the Holiday Farm Fire had broken out about 40 miles away.
“When we woke up Tuesday morning, everything was covered in ash,” said Mike, 74.
The Holiday Farm Fire was fast-moving, and the area soon was placed on a Level 2 evacuation notice, meaning residents should be prepared to leave. The Pungercars, like so many Oregon residents, began to make painful choices about what to take from their home of 25 years.
“We got the wedding album and found boxes of pictures from our kids’ childhoods and our childhoods,” Mike told the Catholic Sentinel, Portland’s archdiocesan newspaper. They gathered their medications and a small stash of clothes and placed everything in one large suitcase.
“We’ve been married for 53 years, and you accumulate and accumulate and you look around at your stuff, the photos on the walls, and you have to pick,” Mike said. “You have to pick what you cherish most — what can’t be replaced — and what will become only memories.”
The Pungercars have two children, a son, 51, in Salem, Oregon, and a 48-year-old daughter in the Seattle area. “Of course they are very concerned about us,” said Milly.
“Our daughter is not a faith-practicing person right now, but she’s been praying and getting her friends in Seattle to pray,” Milly said.
“There may be some side blessings to all this,” said Mike.
Neighbors stopped by Sept. 8 to make sure the couple was prepared to evacuate, while the Pungercars had a neighboring widow stay for a lengthy visit so she wouldn’t have to process her fear alone.
“We actually were going to have her over for dinner when we got the Level 3 must-evacuate notice,” Mike said. “We heard the sirens whooping, signaling for us to leave.”
“It’s hard knowing that you might not have a house to go back to,” said Milly, her voice cracking. “My heart breaks for those who have lost their homes.”
The Holiday Farm Fire had expanded to 166,503 acres by Sept. 15 and was 6% contained. Overtaxed firefighters are stretched thin across the state.
On Sept. 11, the blaze was about seven miles from the Pungercars’ subdivision, though the evening before, the couple heard reports that the fire might be slowing.
“Unless something changes drastically, our homes and those in our neighborhood are likely OK,” Mike said.
But many in the state will not be so lucky.
“If we do go back, I think there will be some survivor’s guilt, with so many people hurting, with so many people who have lost so much,” said Mike.
Once the fires finally subside, the Pungercars are certain they will learn of friends whose homes were affected.
“In our relationship, we really support one another, and that and our faith — plus all these prayers — has really helped these past few days,” said Milly.
“Wow, we’ve been getting a lot of prayers,” added Mike, who has been having nearly hourly conversations with God.
“The strongest thing that we’ve had to turn to as we’ve face the potential of losing everything and seeing the devastation is prayer,” he said. “We know this is not over.”
By Katie Scott, special projects reporter at the Catholic Sentinel, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Portland.