Make the McKenzie Connection!

McKenzie River Community Celebration

For those of you, that don’t know me, I am Patence Winningham, a resident of McKenzie Bridge, formerly a Blue River brat from the 70’s and 80’s. And as of 2019, Emergency Manager for Lane County. I still can’t believe I actually moved into a job that would position me to support and coordinate efforts, in my own community, OUR community’s worst day.

When the “Locals helping Locals” group asked me to speak, I really had to think about what direction I wanted to take this speech. My First thought, was to write this stuff down because If I don’t I will forget some stuff and my emotions would determine what I’d say.

2020 had an impact. Lets’ be honest, 2020 really had an impact, from the worldwide pandemic in February, to losing my mother in March, becoming an empty nester in June, to a wildfire that wiped my hometown off the planet in September, yep an impact, a really big one.

Being a McKenzie River community member, my entire life, and commuting to Eugene for most of it. I asked myself what makes a community? Well, I thought, it’s the schools, the churches, the community centers, the fire stations, the library, the post office, the stores and the local watering hole, right? Well yes, to some degree, but those are all just buildings. Buildings that can be replaced, rebuilt, but those buildings brought the real asset to the community, the people. A group of people that provide a sense of belonging being together, adding value to other people, being “connected.” Now I don’t mean the Blue River Bulletin Board on Facebook, I mean the relationships we have with each other, relationships we have built while, at the post office, at the store, at the library, at school, at the Fire Station.

For me, I have two communities one personal community (home), and the other is my work community, a place I spend a large amount of my time building relationships, trust, planning for, preparing for disasters, working with everyone to make a plan for a bad day. Now, to be clear, when I started in this field in 2007, we made up the scenarios like historic wildfires, large snowstorms and worldwide pandemics, and train and exercise those SCENARIOS, and the real world events were few and far between.

We are here to recognize those First Responders that ran into the fire that night. Didn’t ask questions, didn’t wait, but went to do what they do Life Safety, stabilize the incident, and protect the environment/infrastructure. They worked tirelessly to evacuate as many people as they could and stop the fire from spreading. Through planning, training, and real world events, I have to come to know and appreciate our first responders on a personal and professional level. Each and every one of those that supported the evacuation response, the alert & warning notices, to search and rescue efforts brought everything they had to respond this event. Law Enforcement, Fire, Public Works, Search & Rescue and Utilities, put themselves in some pretty sticky situations, but because they plan for, train for, and exercise these scenarios they were prepared to make quick decisions and act swiftly, saving many lives (those people that make this a community). We must not forget to recognize our neighbors, for many of us reached out to be sure our neighbors had heard the alerts and had a way to evacuate. Building and infrastructure can be replaced, the people cannot. I am thankful every day to see all of those familiar faces, in both of my communities.

Each and every one of us should not become complacent, we all have a responsibility to be prepared to respond to an event of any kind. As we have all seen, every event starts and ends locally. All Local responders are the first in and the last to leave. The State and the Federal Government have limited resources even more so when the entire Pacific Northwest is on fire. We can and must plan to care for ourselves, first your family, our community (your neighbors, your co-workers).

Patence Winningham-Melcher. manager of Lane County’s Office of Emergency Management, was the keynote speaker at the day-long community event at the McKenzie Community Track & Field.


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