Feeding families, heroes in times of fire

By Scott Swanson
Of The New Era/Lebanon Local

Douglas Lowe was in Sweet Home in September 2020 when he had a “eureka” moment.

Following a career as a chef in California, Lowe was staying with a friend in the area while traveling Oregon, scouting possible retirement locations. While he was in Sweet Home, the Holiday Farm fire broke out and burned up the Calapooia Valley.

Lowe, 48, said he already had become more aware of the impacts of wildfires.

“I had a good friend who lost everything in the (2018) Paradise Fire, so it was kind of, like, starting to touch home, when your friends like that start losing stuff.”

Smoke from wildfires burning in Linn County hangs over Sweet Home in September 2020. File photo

The Holiday Farm fire broke out Sept. 7, 2020, becoming one of the largest wildfires in Oregon history, burning a total of 173,393 acres, primarily in the McKenzie River valley, but threatening Sweet Home, prompting Level 3 evacuation orders for residents of the Upper Calapooia, Crescent Hill and Brush Creek areas.

“We had a fire going on in Holley, just to the south of us, and another one right north of us, a few miles up,” he recalled, referring to the Santiam Canyon Fire. “I had my RV all packed up and we were ready to boogie. We just got lucky and didn’t have to really evacuate, but we were ready to go.”

The next day, the Phoenix/Talent-area neighborhood, in which another of Lowe’s friends lived in southern Oregon, was “wiped out” by the Alameda Fire.

“I just happened to be watching the news and I saw up in Oregon City, where they were having another huge fire incident, there was an evacuation area and the news reporter happened to be there,” Lowe said. “A gentleman just cooking up some hamburgers on a barbecue.”

The man told the reporter he had friends who’d stayed behind to try to protect their animals, “save what they could.”

“He just anticipated that they might be leaving at the very last second with nothing in their hands, that they might show up hungry, so he was just going to have some hot food there ready for them, which I thought was a noble gesture by him and just a good deed that guy was doing.

“It also triggered an idea that, you know, maybe we need something like that more, you know, focused on this region full-time.”

Lowe said he decided to take action. He’s created a business to provide free food for fire victims and others involved in fighting wildfires.

“We will provide hot meals, water and wifi service. We will also be feeding first responders once we are able to do so.

“I just kind of felt like in this area, in particular, every year it’s going to require a service like that and could use something that’s dedicated to this,” he said.

So that’s where I kind of came up with the plan.”

Lowe has spent his entire adult life in restaurants, starting at In-N-Out Burger as a teen in California and moving on to chain restaurants and a high-end steakhouse in Beverly Hills.

Douglas Lowe

“I have a long, long history in restaurants,” he said, noting that he’s a graduate of Le Cordon Bleu culinary school. “I’m a trained chef. I’ve done everything in restaurants from fast food to fine dining. I’ve worked huge events like Coachella, where we had catering companies and we were cooking 8,000 pounds of meat over a three-day period and serving 100,000 people.”

He said he’s getting older and “I can’t really run around restaurants.”

This venture is new to him, he admitted.

He said he decided to start Emergency Mobile Meals for the Pacific Northwest – EMMP – as a business, to get it up and running faster than he could if it were a nonprofit, which is his goal. His goal is to be ready to roll this summer.

His plan is to be on-site when evacuations occur due to wildfires.

“Let’s say there was an evacuation and everyone here in Sweet Home needs to go down to the evacuation site, which could be like, the fairgrounds or whatever. I will go to that site and set up my mobile food tent and just start preparing hot meals.”

He noted that people who are leaving their homes in a hurry often don’t have time to collect food and other necessities.

“At first, it’ll be super simple, you know, hamburgers, hot dogs, chicken, a vegetarian option like a vegetarian patty – something like that. Maybe some egg sandwiches or something like that for breakfast with coffee. Fruit chips. Just a little food stand where people can just walk right up, grab something.

“If they need some water, I’ll have water available there for them.

“I also want to hook up a wifi service so in case somebody isn’t getting wifi, they can maybe jump on WhatsApp or something like that, so they can get in contact with their family members, let them know that they’re safe, you know, and at least made it out.”

Lowe said he’ll stay at a site until he runs out of food or it’s time to move on to another location, “the next evacuation.”

He’s investing his own money to get EMMP started, but he hopes to get support from foundations and crowdfunding donations.

Also, he said, he’s looking into bidding opportunities to provide food for firefighting agencies.

Sweet Home Gleaners and volunteers load groceries for distribution to fire victims at the Linn County Expo Center in September 2020. File photo

“If I can get some big corporate sponsors, if I can find a water sponsor, who’s, you know, willing to give me a couple pallets of water, it’d be good for them. They’ll get the branding out there and they’re helping out their community as well.

“And the more of those types of sponsors I can find, the less money I have to spend on the nuts and bolts of the food operation.”

Although he’s still getting the enterprise up and running, he’s established a website, emmp.us, and he’s been working to connect with local agencies that fight fires to get a lay of the land.

The website will include a blog, so he can keep those interested in what he’s doing up to date on progress.

His target area is the entire Northwest, but he’s focusing particularly on Oregon to start, he said.

“There’ll definitely be a learning curve,” Lowe said. “I’ll be obviously keeping up to date with the news and getting on the forestry sites and figuring out where the big fires are and trying to keep updated that way.

“I’m a one-man band right now, so I’ll be centrally located here in Oregon, but if something pops off in Washington or Idaho or Northern California, I’ll be happy to go over to our neighbors and help them out.

“The point is to just feed people, regardless of where they’re at.”

To contact Lowe, visit emmp.us or email [email protected].