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‘The Scariest Thing Ever’: Southern Oregon Evacuees Describe Almeda Fire

Erik Neumann/JPR
Les Connell owns Northridge Center, a senior assisted living center that was destroyed in the Almeda Fire. They set up a temporary facility at the Jackson County Expo.

As the Almeda Fire swept through the Oregon towns of Talent and Phoenix this week, residents evacuated to an emergency shelter at the Jackson County Expo. Soon, many found themselves homeless in their own towns.

Tall black curtains form cubicles inside a dining hall converted into a makeshift senior center. Elderly residents sit in wheelchairs or lie resting on cots.

“We loaded all the residents, about 50 of them, up on these buses,” says Les Connell, the owner of Northridge Center, a senior assisted living facility near Phoenix.

“We all spent the night here and are trying to find placement because the building did burn. Completely. So, we can’t take them back.”

He says everyone got out safely without injuries. Just months ago, many facilities like this were under lockdown because of the coronavirus pandemic. Now, they’re improvising.

“We were able to get our computers and the medical records and all the medicines for the residents,” he says. “That’s critical because some of them have life-sustaining medicines.”

Outside, people who’ve lost their homes comb through piles of donated clothes and bedding. A few food trucks are giving out free hamburgers and snow cones.

Bryan Flores and Adriana Hays live in Phoenix where they attend high school. They both lost their homes in the fire.

“It was a rough night,” Hays says. “My mom was still at work. She couldn’t leave yet. My family got out barely on time. The sheriffs had to be there to tell them that they need to get out.”

Hays and Flores.jpg
Erik Neumann/JPR
Adriana Hays and Bryan Flores expected to start the school year on Wednesday at Phoenix High School. After their houses caught on fire they evacuated to the Expo.

When Flores heard about the fire racing through Phoenix, he, his parents and three siblings evacuated before their house burned down.

“We booked it all the way to Grants Pass to see if it was alright there,” Flores says. “And there was also a fire there that was starting to come to us, so we had to go back to Medford. We passed by Phoenix to see what remained. There was nothing. And then we came here, to the Expo, to take refuge.”

Both Flores and Hays were supposed to start the school year on Wednesday. Now they’re evacuees.

“I’m thinking, ‘This feels like a normal day,’ and then in the back of my mind I’m still thinking, ‘We don’t have a house to go back to. We lost our pets in the fire. We don’t have anything,’” Hays says.

Debi Rappaport was at the shelter too. She’s lived in the City of Talent for a dozen years.

“This is the scariest thing that’s ever happened. Ever,” she says.

A friend’s son snuck through the road closure, so she heard that her house did not burn down. Now, she says, she’s experiencing a mix of emotions.

“I’m feeling really lucky, blessed. And sad, for them and my town,” she says. “Because Talent’s like an Andy of Mayberry kind of place, you know?”

As of Thursday, the Almeda Fire had burned 3,200 acres. Investigators estimate around 600 homes and 100 businesses have burned.

Two people have been found dead. A criminal investigation is underway for one of the deaths that happened about a mile from where the fire started. Ashland police are also investigating the cause of the fire.

At the Expo state Representative Pam Marsh, whose district includes Ashland, is trying to help connect evacuees with resources. When I meet her, she’s trying to figure out where else to find EZ-UP canopies to get shade for evacuees in the 90 degree heat.

Marsh says at this point in the disaster they’re trying to organize state and federal resources that might be able to help, like assistance from the National Guard.

“I think we’re going to need something on the ground here for a while,” Marsh says. “And then, I’m not sure what happens next. I don’t know where we house hundreds of people who have lost their homes.”

The Rogue Valley already had an affordable housing crisis. Many of the neighborhoods that burned were manufactured homes or trailers. The fire is going to make the housing problem worse.

With the current economic crisis and now this, Representative Marsh says, it’s going to be a long-term effort to rebuild.

Erik Neumann is the interim news director at Jefferson Public Radio. He earned a master's degree from the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and joined JPR as a reporter in 2019 after working at NPR member station KUER in Salt Lake City.