In September of 2020, wildfires ravaged rural Lane county in Eugene, devastating hundreds of acres of land, homes, businesses and infrastructure.

A rural WiFi access point.

Part of our team at XS Media joined forces with numerous network professionals from around the Pacific Northwest, to set up temporary internet solutions as Oregon Internet Response (OIR.) What transpired was an intuitive mix of creativity, collaboration and expert innovation.

Jason Robinson, a Project Manager at XS Media, began volunteering with Oregon Internet Response in October, along with XS Media Field Technician Alex Turner. Their goal was initially to contribute additional manpower wherever needed out in the field, but Jason’s role quickly became administrative as he began to attend meetings as an organizer to set agendas and outline conclusions. Much of his volunteer time was spent in a remote capacity during weekly online meetings. However he also did some heavy lifting and field work, giving him a unique perspective on both the action and intricate complexities of each project the team undertook. Helping to coordinate a large team of bonafide network experts, Jason described both keeping things organized and keeping up. There was much to learn in a position where he could view the creative processes behind each final project.

One of these projects was when the team combined knowledge and imagination to figure out how they could use an old phone infrastructure running through a neighborhood of homes, to create a temporary phone connection in that area. With the area lacking cell phone service, OIR realized the value of that older copper phone wire phone wire. The fire had destroyed the main phone lines traveling long distances back to town, leaving small islands of wire nearest to the homes. OIR connected new temporary phone service to those phone wire islands, allowing residents to get in contact with emergency services and family. According to Jason, this project was one of many examples of the highly skilled team of network experts coming together to make the absolute most of the limited resources available to them.

An emergency internet access box mounted at a critical location.

During one of the work parties, Jason assisted other OIR members in hauling a heavy steel tower segment up hills in rural forested areas to reinforce an access point in one of the devastated locations. Aside from field work, he also volunteered in some of the small rural towns. Emergency WiFi locations were strategically placed in areas that people were using to connect to each other for gathering supplies and support; places like community centers, schools, clinics, churches, markets and more. Each site was different, but in some cases, the infrastructure and vegetation surrounding the access point area was burnt away, leaving just the parking lots untouched. While these areas often presented the challenging realities of large-scale devastation to the community, the temporary connection spots were like beacons in the dark.

Record-breaking fires damaged or destroyed almost everything in their path. Jason described the critical zones as eye-opening and bleak. “It was like a comms black hole.” He explained. Jason recalled what it was like to drive through devastated locations in need of network support, where rows of homes, burnt to their foundations, were left with only standing chimneys in the rubble. “It was difficult to smell the burnt forests.” He said, reflecting on all of the infrastructure and homes that were reduced to ash by the fires. However along with the shock and grief, came overwhelming pride in the volunteer contributions of the entire Oregon Internet Response team.

“It was so rewarding to look out at this network that was built from recycled or scrounged materials, as a response to a massive community devastation.” In the beginning, Jason knew that this project would be intensely important to him. Working with OIR enabled him to collaborate with a team that was equally invested in giving back to the community with a purposeful vision. Looking back on the project, Jason says: “In some small ways, I helped contribute to something very big, which was crucial to people in our community.”

A panoramic photo taken at a worksite. Click to enlarge:

According to Oregon Live, the mass destruction of the fire took over 800 structures in Lane County, nearly 500 of which were homes. Equally drastic, the damage was catastrophic to phone lines and internet networks in the area. Today, four months later, the families of East Lane County are still rebuilding. Jason says, “It will take a lot of time to restore what was there.”

The story is not over, as long as it occupies the memories of those who lived it. We at XS Media believe that it is important to reflect on the difficulties of the past, so that we may inform our future. Jason said that one of his greatest take-aways from his experience volunteering to restore lost connections, was that every single person who participated in the relief effort was treated by the group as a valuable part of each undertaking. “When you’ve got the right people together, no contribution is too small.”

Moving forward, we know that with the right team of committed individuals, no journey is too daunting. With eyes set on the future, we will continue to adamantly pursue initiatives that align with our mission to inspire personal trust within our communities and strengthen our unyielding commitment to this region.