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The Echo Mountain Fire Relief Fund, North Lincoln County’s only nonprofit dedicated solely to assisting fire survivors, has appointed a new executive director, Bethany Grace Howe.

Howe, who began her work in fire relief in mid-October as the Wildfire Resource Navigator working through the Olalla Center for Children and Families, began in her new role on Dec. 16. It’s a job her experience since the fire has taught her is needed.

“When Echo Mountain Fire Relief was founded, we had a simple goal: to raise as much money as possible as quickly as possible,” Howe said. “But in the two months that I’ve been working with the people of Otis, it’s become clear to me that our mission needed to both be lengthened and broadened.”

Most importantly, the fund has chosen to focus on long-term relief, ensuring that those survivors who fall through the cracks of government and insurance assistance have at least one resource they can turn to for help.

“Unfortunately, it may take up to a year for us to really know who was unable to benefit from all the normal avenues of support,” Howe said. “That’s why we’re taking a little bit longer than I think any of us originally thought we might.”

To that end, the fund has begun the “Two Ninety-Three Project,” a goal to raise $293,000 in 293 days for the 293 families impacted by the Echo Mountain Fire. Already the group has raised nearly $60,000, with every dime raised for survivors going directly to the project.

“It’s a blessing that Bethany took on this endeavor knowing that no funds from the donations would be used to fund her position,” said Dan Clanton, president of the fund.

Instead, Howe’s position will be funded by grants designed to support operational expenses, meaning the fundraising goal towards long-term relief will not be impacted.

This focus on long-term relief has highlighted another need, however: immediate assistance - and not just financial.

“In my work with the Olalla Center, my job was to identify people’s housing needs, as well as communicating to county government what issues were impacting survivors immediately and directly. In doing so, I talked to hundreds of people,” she said. “What I also came to realize, however, was that what people needed most immediately wasn’t just funding, it was communication.

“There were thousands of people up here - survivors, volunteers, community groups - that wanted and or needed help, but had no idea how to connect with one another.”

From this realization came the Wildfire Relief Network (WReN), a collection of individuals representing survivors, community groups, and other area nonprofits. In constant communication with one another, they work together to identify needs and provide immediate solutions.

“As often as not, I don’t have the solution to people’s immediate needs - but the WReN does,” said Howe, who recently completed her Ph.D. at the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism and Communication. “I’ve yet to pose a problem that they haven’t found a resolution to.”

Donated furniture storage for fire survivors, a Christmas party for children left homeless by the fire, small meals cooked by survivors for survivors, and finding funding for the volunteer clean-up project on Echo Mountain are just a few of the area projects the network has helped found and/or support.

“Truly, I get a lot of credit, but I’m just the mouthpiece,” Howe said. “It’s the community network that’s come together that really solves these problems.”

If that is to continue, however, the network is going to need to grow, she said.

“These first few months, it’s been kind of crazy,” Howe said. “Someone comes to me with an idea or project, and I use the WReN to find people who can help. It’s often, however, the same people, and that’s not always going to work.

“We’re embarking on a rebuilding process that’s going to take not just months, but years. And while it’s amazing what people have already done, what comes next is going to require all of us.”

Howe said she is now going to be reaching out to both individuals and community groups to see how they would like to be involved.

“Whatever it is they’d like to do, no matter how big or how small, I know I can find a place they can help,” Howe said.

Clanton has no doubt the fund’s new leader is up to the task.

“Bethany has made some great connections in her former position and she will be a great asset to our mission and fund,” Clanton said.

For information about how to donate to the Echo Mountain Fire Relief Fund, or the Wildfire Relief Network, please contact Executive Director Bethany Grace Howe at 541-921-0408 or at EchoMountainFireRelief@gmail.com.

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