Oregon operator helps evacuate seniors in path of deadly fire

Smoke has been so thick in Oregon that Joe Gillis at times can barely see across the street. Fires in southern Oregon have killed at least six people and destroyed hundreds of homes. 

On the Tuesday following Labor Day, he dispatched a bus to pick up residents of a senior living facility in the path of the deadly fire. 

After that first assignment, several of his coaches were on standby at other retirement homes, waiting to move residents if fire levels changed and evacuations were ordered. Most have been released, but as of Tuesday, he still had two buses waiting in Roseburg. The town is a three-hour drive from Portland, where his business, Northwest Navigator Luxury Coaches, is located.

“We’ve had as many as eight buses. We’ve been asked for more, but that’s all we could muster at this point, in drivers as well as just buses,” said Gillis. 

‘Quite an ordeal’

He had taken the license plates off most of his buses so they would qualify for the lowest insurance rates. Not only did he have to scramble to add insurance. He also had to get plates so the buses could move again. Bringing back drivers and maintenance workers wasn’t easy, either, because some were awaiting word about whether they would need to evacuate from their homes.

“It was quite an ordeal,” Gillis said, adding that he had to call 20 drivers to find 10 who were available.

He credits having discussions with his insurance carrier, Lancer Insurance Co., and the Oregon Department of Transportation and the Motor Carrier division for helping to quickly get his coaches back on the road to help with evacuations.

Lancer previously agreed to let him pay for insurance by the day instead of a full renewal.

“They’re charging a lot to put it on for a day, but it’s better than having to pay a month worth of insurance when we could be dead again for another three months,” Gillis said.

Recruited for service

Initially, he had to show up in person to get license plates, but then he was allowed to quickly apply online for temporary permits.

A NorthWest Navigator bus waits for an evacuation call during the 2020 Oregon fires.

“That pre-work and knowing the people we’re working with made it a lot easier,” Gillis said. 

The company initially was recruited by Bus Finders, which had contracts with retirement facilities throughout the country. Gillis was also called directly by retirement homes they had worked with previously.

He found the bigger companies were proactive and had a plan in place. They wanted to rent buses and drivers in 12-hour increments to wait in case an evacuation was required. They were also willing to pay to house a driver in a hotel room.

“Some of the smaller retirement homes were trying to save money, and they wanted us to be on call and then call us at 2 in the morning and say, ‘Hey, how quick can you get here?’” Gillis said. 

Having a plan in place

He came away from the experience seeing an opportunity to work with retirement facilities putting a plan in place in case of a similar natural disaster.

“I think there’s a huge business there to talk to retirement homes and similar places about if something bad does happen, they need to have a way to move people. So having a pre-planned agreement with an operator is probably a really good business decision. All they need to do is call us, and we’ll have vehicles ready to go,” Gillis said.

Often, drivers are needed to be on standby because a shift in wind can quickly change the path of a fire and require immediate evacuation.

“If you have level one, it means you’re in the path of the fire but there’s no immediate danger. Level two is packed and ready to go. Level three means evacuate. Everybody around here was at level two until pretty much the weekend,” Gillis said. 

Out of the smoke

Drivers waiting for possible evacuation are housed in hotel rooms to keep them out of the smoke, because people who spend too much time in the smoke begin feeling ill. Gillis has been trying to get some N95 masks for his drivers to protect them from the worst of the smoke. He also tries to keep them inside as much as possible.

“After being out there awhile, you can feel it in your lungs and your eyes,” Gillis said. “It’s just not safe to be out there.”

The coaches are recirculating air on vehicles to avoid bringing in smoke. Air quality tied to the fire is a bigger concern than even COVID-19.

“They’re filling the buses up. In most cases, these people have all been living together so they’re not too worried about a spread, other than our drivers, who are wearing masks and have a barrier between them and the passengers,” Gillis said.

A reminder to lawmakers

There has been big demand for buses with wheelchair lifts. Even those who don’t need wheelchairs may have mobility issues that make climbing stairs difficult. 

Gillis is glad that he has been buying mostly ADA-accessible motorcoaches for the past 15 years, and now has nearly a dozen with wheelchair lifts.

Although he was very busy during the week, he made time to reach out to Oregon’s U.S. senators and representatives to remind them that wildfires are another example of a natural disaster when the motorcoach is a crucial part of the team saving lives. That effort paid off with Congressman Earl Blumenauer signing on as a co-sponsor to the CERTS Act. 

“Like with all natural disasters, when everybody’s running in one direction, the motorcoach industry is usually driving into it,” Gillis said. “We’re coming in to help – a hurricane, a fire or whatever that might be.”

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