By Juliet Grable | Photos By Christopher Briscoe
For the Rogue Valley, September 8, 2020 will be remembered as the day everything changed.
The conditions were unnerving: warm temperatures; vegetation dried from drought; and an unusually strong easterly wind that made it hard to sleep the night before. All that was needed was a spark.
It came at 11:00 am, in a field adjacent a north Ashland neighborhood. What started as a grass fire quickly blew up into a suburban conflagration that darkened skies all day and cast a hellish glow on the horizon all night. The Almeda fire spread from house to house, neighborhood to neighborhood, town to town, destroying entire sections of Talent and Phoenix.
For hours, firefighters and law enforcement officers fought not only the fire, but time, in a frantic, heroic effort to get people out of harm’s way. Neighbors helped neighbors evacuate; some defied orders and stayed to try to save their homes. There were harrowing stories of narrow escapes, traffic jams, and panicked calls to family and friends.
“We had no clue where the fire was or where it was going,” says Christa Rodriguez, recalling a hair-raising evacuation from Talent with her fiancé. “Seeing all the first responders and law enforcement officers, I kept thinking over and over, they’re trying to prevent another Paradise.”
The Almeda Fire created an instant housing crisis, a collective trauma, and left the community fabric in shreds. Thousands of people are navigating the landscape of loss.
There are the grim tallies: 2,350 homes and nearly 200 commercial buildings, lost. Over a dozen mobile home parks and entire senior housing villages, gone. In Phoenix, three out of four kids were instantly homeless, along with many of their teachers.
Those are the statistics. But it’s the drive along Interstate 5 and Highway 99 that makes your throat tighten; the images and videos on social media that grip your gut, the raw accounts from friends-neighbors-strangers that bring you to tears and make you feel proud of your community in a way you never thought possible.
Now, over a month later, the clean-up has begun. Burned out vehicles are being hauled away and crushed. Residents have returned to the places where they slept, gardened, and played with their friends to recover bits of their former lives and to leave bowls of food and water for their cats, hoping that by some miracle they might still be alive.
“Our decisions [about] what to take will forever haunt us. The "Why didn't we grab this or that?" will be a subject of many bouts of tears, sadness, anger and depression. "We lost EVERYTHING!" will play itself over and over forever.”
Others have left the valley altogether, to stay with friends, family, or whomever will have them. Many will not return.
Although the acrid odor of charred homes, vehicles, and trees still lingers, the first rains have come. The skies are blue; there’s a chill in the air.
But those of us who live in and near the Rogue Valley know we will never be the same. There will be before the Almeda Fire, and after. How we rebuild will be up to all of us.
Unidos y fuertes
A Phoenix, rising from the ashes.
For hundreds of people, these aren’t just pithy slogans, but words to live by as they devote their days to helping our communities recover. We know there are many stories that won’t be told; too many heroes will remain unsung. We also recognize that there were other devastating fires that horrible week, including the South Obenchain Fire in northeastern Jackson County, which destroyed over 30 homes.
We wish we could tell all of your stories. But we hope that by highlighting these few, along with some of the efforts to help and heal, we honor the many, and inspire more people to be part of a stronger, more resilient After.
Desperately Seeking Shelter
Shortly before noon on September 8, Jocksana Corona spotted thick dark smoke billowing up from behind the trees south of her home at Talent Mobile Estates. While she waited for her husband, Carlos, to come and get them, she and their two children went door to door, warning neighbors to leave. Twelve-year-old Abby filled a kiddie pool with water for the cats they couldn’t find.
The Coronas’ mobile home burned, along with nearly all of the park’s 100 units. Now, the family is staying at the Girl Scout Center in Medford, along with Carlos’s mother and sister, who also lost their home to the fire, and their many animals. They were hoping to use their insurance check as a down payment on a new home, but there’s nothing available.
Still, “we were lucky,” says Jocksana. “Probably 95 percent of the mobile homes weren’t insured.” In a region already straining from a severe lack of affordable housing, the Almeda Fire has scaled up the crisis tenfold. “Housing has always been a privilege here,” says Jocksana, adding that most of the park’s residents were Latinx. “Now it’s even more so.”
“Today we were standing in the ashes of our home and suddenly Carlos Corona asked me if I still want to keep walking through life with him. I have to admit that I was scared when he asked me this. I was wondering if he was questioning my loyalty/commitment. Then he got on one knee and handed me my wedding ring. The ring I thought I lost in the fire. He found it in the ashes and told me that he wants to keep walking by my side and promised me that if I want to come back to Talent he will make sure we get to come home again. Our home is Talent. It might take us few years but we will be back to our beautiful town of Talent, Oregon.”
People are scrambling to find housing before winter. Households are doubling and tripling up, applying for FEMA disaster relief, taking motel vouchers from the Red Cross. But for families with undocumented members, federal and state resources aren’t an option, says Niria Alicia, a community organizer who cofounded the Almeda Fires Latinx Relief Fund. For them, help comes “person to person.”
Niria’s fund is helping Latinx families with everything from housing and medical bills to gas and clothing. There are many ways to help, she says. Take your home off the market and offer it to a displaced family for six months or a year. Lend an extra RV, trailer, Fifth Wheel, or spare vehicle, or donate cash, so people can buy these things themselves.
Niria believes we have the resources. “It’s a matter of opening our hearts and our pocketbooks,” she says.
Elib Crist-Dwyer, who has been a scenic carpenter for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) for 14 years, is heading up one effort to provide short-term housing to displaced families.
Under his direction, the vast OSF building in Talent is serving as a hub for 50 “ShiftPods,” insulated dome tents that measure 100 square feet. The first 10 units were donated by the company’s founder, who used them in his Burning Man camp. Forty more were purchased at a deep discount through a fund managed by Rogue Climate and Rogue Action Center.
The logistics around setting up a ShiftPod camp in the time of COVID proved too daunting, so Crist-Dwyer is asking families to host one in their back yard.
The host family must provide access to a bathroom (and preferably a kitchen), and everyone must follow COVID protocols. So far, Crist-Dwyer has placed nine pods. Nine of the remaining are larger models accessible by wheelchair.
“We’re really concentrating on helping the most vulnerable families,” he says. “It’s not a permanent solution, or one that will even get a family though winter. But it will help them now.”
Confronting The Ashes
Anna Braje does not like to ask for help.
But with a baby less than a month old, her husband working at the coast, and almost everything she owned burned in the Almeda Fire, she didn’t have a choice.
Braje’s aunt set up a fundraiser for the family. Another relative took them in. Now she needed help sifting through the ashes of the home she and her husband Ian rented at Bear Creek Mobile Home Park. Braje was hoping to find her wedding ring, which her husband designed, and perhaps, the remains of one of her cats, Joey.
When Braje evacuated, she grabbed the journals her father had written for her, a basket of laundry, and her baby, Lucille. The exit was blocked by emergency vehicles. As she drove over the median, she saw the first few units near the entrance on fire.
“I knew there was no going back at that point,” says Braje, recalling the heat, the wind, the smell. “The only word I can think to describe it is apocalyptic.”
After enduring the trauma of fleeing a fast-moving fire, thousands of people have had to confront visiting what remains of their homes and neighborhoods. Braje asked Samaritan’s Purse to sift her homesite. This nonprofit Christian organization, which deploys to disasters all over the world, has received 560 orders to sift debris, and they hope to get to all of them before FEMA begins their clean-up. Although their stated purpose for this mission is to help people recover physical objects from the fire, they are also there to listen and provide emotional support as people confront the enormity of their losses.
“We grew up in the Valley. We were Cubs; we were Grizzlies. While we’ve lost everything, it makes you realize that you have everything. We have each other, our parents are close by; we have this community, which is amazing. The love and support is overwhelming.”
Before going to work, the team of volunteers gathered in a circle with Braje. One by one they introduced themselves. They came from Texas, Florida, Kentucky, and The Dalles; a couple from Colorado served as chaplains. “Let us carry you for a while,” said Grant Boustead, one of the team leaders. Then they prayed.
The actual work is painstaking, tedious, almost peaceful. Volunteers scrape through larger debris with garden tools and filter finer bits through sifting boxes, hoping to spy a glint of jewelry or silverware.
Other groups, including Helping Hands International, are helping people sift through the debris of their former homes, and many people are doing this somber work on their own. Sometimes these searches yield unexpected treasures. Robbie Dunlop, who lost her home at Mountain View Estates, found her grandmother’s spoon and an angel figurine—objects which, having endured a trial by fire, are infused with new significance.
“No matter what Grandma cooked, she used that spoon. She said [that’s] what made it tastes so good. As long as you had the spoon, you could cook anything. I’ve had this little angel for 30 years. I was having a real difficult time in my life. I looked down on the ground and this angel was just laying there. I took it as a sign that everything was going to be alright.”
As the Almeda fire tore through the valley, many had only
enough time to gather what they could and flee. Many people couldn’t find their cats, or weren’t home when the fire hit.
“I went in the next day,” says Adrienne Reynolds, who was worried about the feral cat colony she looked after at Totem Pole Trailer Park in Talent. “I wasn’t supposed to, but I did.”
Soon, Reynolds was flooded with messages from people asking if she could help search for their beloved animals.
Last night a friend of mine (who wants to learn rescue) and I ventured into three different, devastated mobile home parks, searching for cats the owners so desperately miss. We spotted many cats! And will be returning tonight with equipment to trap and get reunited, vet care, etc. As the ash settles, the smoke clears, and people begin returning to what was once their homes, my hope is they will be reunited with their purr babies.
After losing everything to the fire, a missing pet is heartbreak upon heartbreak. Although many perished in the fire, others—filthy, scared, hungry, some injured—went into hiding. A loose network of volunteers sprang up to help find, feed, and treat the victims, reunite them with their people, and find foster homes.
Jane “Rabbitt” Babbitt, a longtime Friends of the Animal Shelter volunteer, is among those making daily circuits to burned-out mobile home parks, putting out food, checking trail cams, listening, and watching. “It’s all so overwhelming—it was, even before the fire, with COVID and the political situation,” she says. “I’m just keeping my head down and going to feeding stations and looking for cats.”
While Reynolds mostly works alone, other rescuers, including a group of women who call themselves A.R.F.—Animal Rescue Force—collaborate. All rescuers post and share pictures and descriptions on a confusing array of Facebook pages.
Helping animals is a simple expression of compassion, with no messy strings attached. Hundreds have donated supplies and money to rescuers and vital organizations. The Jackson County Animal Shelter, which had to evacuate their building in Phoenix, set up shop at the Jackson County Expo Center and acted as a hub for lost and found animals. Southern Oregon Veterinary Specialty Center treated burned animals at no charge until their owners were found.
Shannon Jay, who has spent over 2000 hours on the ground rescuing cats in burn zones, arrived from California to teach the finer points of “firecat” rescue. Along with useful tips—Use the juice from the mackerel to soak cut up rags to hang above the food areas; KFC original recipe chicken is kitty crack—he brought vital equipment, including a thermal imaging scope, to help locate scared and injured cats that had crawled into impossible nooks and cracks. Jay helped Reynolds on a nail-biting rescue on Highway 99, where they raised a burned-out vehicle with a floor jack and plucked the cat to safety.
Burned kitty 99 played for the first time last night! And we trapped 3 cats yesterday!!! 2 were reunited with their owners, and my heart is BRIMMING!
Reynolds has captured, sterilized, and relocated several cats from the Totem Pole colony. One, which she named “99,” has become the poster cat for feline burn victims. When first captured, the skin on his nose, paws and legs had completely burned off. A month later, short fuzz is starting to conceal the tender pink skin.
Rethinking Bear Creek
Bear Creek is a connector, linking human communities from Ashland to Central Point and connecting the mountains to the Rogue River. Despite its poor water quality, it’s a conduit for life: water and young fish flow downstream, while adult Coho and Chinook return to the creek to spawn. The corridor was also a haven for birds, squirrels, beavers, for the people who recreated there, and for some who made the greenway their home, buffered from view by a thicket of non-native Himalayan blackberries.
Since 2008, hundreds of kids from Helman Elementary in Ashland had helped plant mock orange, currant, and other natives around Ashland Pond, close to the origin of the fire. On the morning of September 8, what took hours to plant and years to grow was erased in minutes.
Bear Creek became a corridor of destruction. The fire roared up the drainage, burning vegetation, charring trees, and no doubt incinerating hundreds of animals that will never be accounted for.
“The greenway is a remnant haven for wildlife, the thin blue and green line through Bear Creek Valley. I am very concerned that most of the mature big trees, the cottonwoods, are toast and that the response from our traumatized community will be to cut them all down. Our bird neighbors need large living and dead trees with cavities. I've been thinking about shifting baselines a lot, heart-broken especially about further loss of streamside and bottomland forests. Our upland forests and woodlands are more resilient to wildfire, but climate change, extreme fire weather, and 100 years of active fire suppression are changing the game.”
The fire laid bare the banks of Bear Creek, and with it some of our communities’ most challenging issues: houselessness, lack of mental health resources and affordable housing, and deferred environmental restoration.
But this blackened blank slate also offers an opportunity, says Robyn Janssen of Rogue Riverkeeper.
“The riparian area had a lot of non-natives, and the fire took all of that out,” she says. “In that sense, it’s kind of great. Those problem plants are gone.”
Rogue Riverkeeper is working with several agencies, organizations, and municipalities to make sure Bear Creek is protected in the short term and restored thoughtfully in the long term. “It’s a refocused effort, putting some attention and love in there as opposed to ignoring it and pretending like it’s not there, which unfortunately has been the case for many years,” says Janssen.
After the fire, the drought dragged on; reservoirs drained to record lows.
“The Almeda Fire was definitely exacerbated by climate change—the hot dry summer, the unseasonable winds are all part of climate chaos. Our communities need to learn to be resilient and support each other during these crises because they’re going to keep happening. A critical part of the work for climate justice is to ensure that when these crises happen, we have our community’s back.”
But rain, so needed, so anticipated, is also a problem. Thousands of burned structures, vehicles, and their contents have been reduced to fine ash. A heavy rain could bear this toxic sludge into the storm drains that feed into Bear Creek. The newly exposed banks, unprotected by vegetation, could funnel rivers of sediment into the water, where it can clog fish gills and smother eggs.
Jackson County Parks plans to drop thousands of pounds of native seed onto the bare banks before the rains come. Crews from Rogue Valley Sewer Services are racing to cap the waste lines under destroyed homes and install fabric filters in storm drains.
The fish don’t know, or care. What they know is an ancient instinct that tells them to swim upstream. By mid-October, the first Chinook had made their way up Bear Creek as far as Talent—thrilling shapes that seem at first like shadows, for those who take the time to look.
Kimberly Wagner was camping near the coast when the Almeda Fire swept through Talent. “A friend texted me and said, the fire’s probably going to get your home and it could take out the whole valley,” she says.
“The success of the community at large is in so many ways based upon the success of hospitality and tourism. If those things collapse, there’s going to be so much more loss that can’t be gained through a reconstruction project.”
Wagner stayed in a motel in Brookings that night, but she couldn’t sleep. It wasn’t until she watched Bow Shaban DeBey’s midnight bicycle tour on Facebook that she learned the duplex she rented on Arnos Road was one of thousands of homes destroyed that night. When she returned to the Valley, all she had left was her camping gear and clothes she had taken for her short trip.
Even as the fire still smoldered, organizations like Rogue Climate, Rogue Action Center, and Unete were setting up emergency stations where people like Wagner could access the basics: food, diapers, toiletries, clothing.
Ramiro Padilla, owner of El Tapatio in Ashland, fed evacuees in the parking lot of his restaurant. A group of Phoenix and Talent teachers started distributing supplies out of a truck at the Phoenix Home Depot and later, the Shoppes at Exit 24. Just as immediately, restaurants started providing take-away meals for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
“Right away I realized we’re going to need some good food options to support people,” says Adam Danforth, a butcher and advocate for sustainable food systems who lives in Ashland. “What better way to intersect the benefit of incoming relief money than directing it at restaurants and farms who can produce that food.” He reached out to local restaurateurs Melissa McMillan and Jamie North; together they launched Rogue Food Unites, which pays local restaurants to make up to 3,000 meals a day for displaced residents.
These meals are the good stuff: pulled pork from Sammich; lasagna from Arbor House; burritos from Taqueria Las Reyes. As of this writing, between 30 and 35 area restaurants are participating.
The Red Cross delivers about half the meals to motels that are housing many of the displaced. The rest go to the mutual aid stations or to couriers who take meals to homes and farms, where many seasonal workers are currently staying.
As of October 9, Rogue Food Unites had served over 31,000 meals and injected over a quarter of a million dollars into the local economy. Danforth and his team hope to start working with the Phoenix-Talent School District to supplement their school meal service, which only provides breakfast and lunch on weekdays.
“Already, a month out, a sense of normalcy has returned to some parts of the valley. I wonder if other people still in the same emergency mindset that I’m in? There are thousands of people who are homeless and hungry. I hope people aren’t shielding themselves from that reality.”
The meals and mutual aid centers will keep going as long as people need them, says Allie Rosenbluth, Campaigns Director at Rogue Climate. Her organization, which lost their Phoenix office to the fire, took over the Phoenix mutual aid site and runs another in Talent with Rogue Action Center. There are also aid stations at Unete and the Living Waters Church in Medford and at OSF’s Carpenter Hall in Ashland.
Many volunteers are needed to staff these sites, says Rosenbluth. “This work is really critical to being able to keep families here in this valley while they’re in transitional housing.”
Helping & Healing
Humans are meaning makers. Almost immediately after the fire, symbols of renewal bloomed amidst the rubble: buckets of sunflowers; a flag planted in ashes; blades of new grass peeking through charred ground.
In Phoenix, an artist named Benjamin Swatez was struck by the beautiful patina on the body a van ravaged by fire. He got out his supplies and began to paint. As he worked, people gathered.
“This Sprinter van has its own remarkable, heartbreaking and alchemical story, burnt to its skeleton in the fires of Phoenix, Oregon, where I’ve had my permanent address for years. The moment I saw it in the parking lot, I was blown away at the artistry left in the wake of the flames upon its metal! I was looking at a masterpiece and the call directed my brushes to accentuate the beauty and turn destruction into creation.”
“Countless residents stopped", Swatez wrote in a heartfelt Facebook post. "...some in shock, tears, despair, searching for hope, light at the end of the tunnel, something positive... and [it] was a deep honor to listen to some of their stories and share a painting from my heart."
The trauma of the fire struck deep. For weeks, many evacuees kept their cars packed, just in case. Anxiety ticked up on windy days. Many describe a bone-deep exhaustion, trouble sleeping, nightmares, despair—and rage.
The early stage of recovery is filled with all the stuff you have to do, says Scott Bandoroff, an Ashland therapist who provided impromptu crisis counseling at people’s burned-out homesites. Replacing clothes and other belongings, looking for housing, contacting insurance and navigating the FEMA process—all of this busyness staves off the inevitable.
Though heartened by fire victims’ resilience, Bandoroff warns that once people take care of their basic survival needs, the grief will strike—and it will likely be overwhelming. Mingling with uncertainty about the future is a longing for what was lost.
“This is the time to accept support, whether from family or friends or professionals. Accept it, seek it. And be kind to yourself. We’re not very good at that as a species.”
I just want my stuff back, people told me, while in the same breath expressing gratitude for the generosity of friends, family, strangers. I want to sleep in my bed, I want the view from my window. I miss my neighbors, my kitty.
I want to go home.
The person who endured the terror of evacuating says, at least I have my home. The person who lost a home says, at least I had insurance. The person without insurance says, at least I have my dog. The person who lost their dog says, at least I have my life.
Those of us who didn’t lose physical possessions are stuck with a confusing mix of grief and guilt. But the fire ripped great holes in the fabric of our communities. We all feel those losses.
“People tend to dishonor their own trauma, says Bandoroff. “It’s really important not to do that, and to embrace your own grief.”
Helping others can help, suggests Bandoroff, who has taken a fire victim named Kevin Kushima into his home. The creativity and generosity people have shown in the aftermath of the fire begs the question: Why can’t it always be this way? And yet, as the initial shock fades, people will inevitably begin turning their attention elsewhere.
“In moments of presence, I forget about the fire, but more often I feel thrust into a whole new reality, one I know I called in, but also disquieting and unfamiliar.”
Fire victims are worried. Please don’t forget us, they write on the Phoenix and Talent Facebook pages, which have become de facto support groups. Please don’t leave us behind. Keep donating.
Because the truth is, we’ve only taken the first steps on a very long road.