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Too Close To Home

Talent Fire
Ken Silverman
Talent, Oregon

The press release appeared in my email just like any other: a small grass fire had started on Almeda Drive in Ashland.

Those living in the area should consider evacuating, it read. I grabbed my reporter kit — a large outdoorsy waist pack holding a recorder, mic, and headphones. I live 6 miles north in Talent, which seemed far away at the time, but then the northbound winds started to pick up. I remember my husband opening the front door and looking to the sky.

“That’s the most ominous thing I’ve ever seen in my life,” he laughed nervously, pointing at a massive plume of dark-gray smoke that was spreading slowly toward us.

I’d like to say I’m an impartial journalist with no strong feelings about the things I report on, but I just can’t, not with this one.

I’ve been a reporter in rural areas along the West Coast for several years now, so I’m familiar with what happens to people who don’t prepare to evacuate their homes due to a wildfire. They don’t get enough time to gather important documents, clothing, or pets. I’ve heard too many people cry as they explain how they couldn’t catch their cat before their home was swallowed by flames.

That day I chose to prepare to evacuate my home with my husband and our four pets instead of chasing the fire. I wish I could say I made that decision gracefully, but actually, I huffed-and-puffed, frustrated that I had the opportunity to do on-the-ground reporting within minutes and couldn’t. But therein lies the problem: I was too close.

We ended up at a friend’s house in south Medford. Once my family was safely relocated, I hopped back into the car and drove to the nearest roadblock, hoping I’d get more information from law enforcement. They didn’t have much — things were moving fast and even they didn’t yet have a handle on what parts of Talent and Phoenix were evacuated. By that time, I could see active flames near Interstate 5 in Phoenix. Officers told me there was a temporary evacuation center at the Expo Center in Central Point, so that’s where I went.

When I arrived, a couple of dozen people were sitting on lawn chairs. I learned that most of them came from the same mobile home park near Talent. Many had carpooled with each other. Some had to hitch a ride from strangers. One woman sitting alone in the shade told me she couldn’t rescue her two large dogs because she didn’t have a car. She was sure her house was gone. I sat with her in silence as she cried.

That night, like many people in the Rogue Valley, I hardly slept. I had to evacuate my friend’s house in Medford and ended up sleeping on patio furniture in another friend’s smoky backyard in Grants Pass. I was glued to watching Facebook videos of our neighborhood in flames, hoping to catch a glimpse of my house intact. It wasn’t looking good. We didn’t have high hopes.

NPR’s Morning Edition asked if they could interview me on air, which I did at 2:30 in the morning. Their producer called me shortly after. “You sounded upset,” he said. “Are you ok?” I’d like to say I’m an impartial journalist with no strong feelings about the things I report on, but I just can’t, not with this one. I’m upset that I never got an evacuation alert from the county, even though almost everything across the street from my house was destroyed by the fire. I’m angry that there wasn’t a plan for helping people evacuate when they don’t have a car. I’m heartbroken that so many of my neighbors never got to return home, and I’m not sure when I’ll see them again.

Unlike my past experiences reporting on wildfire, I don’t get to leave the destruction behind me in some other distant community. Every day I have to drive past piles of ash and debris to get to my house. But at least I have this: the opportunity to watch my neighbors come together and rebuild. Just a few weeks after the fire, people are already coming up with innovative ways to build affordable housing and redesign our towns in a way that reflects the people who live here. I’m confident that with time, Talent and Phoenix will come out stronger, and more resilient than ever, and I look forward to being part of that process, both as a reporter and as a member of our community.