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One Year After The Rogue Valley Fires, A Mix Of Strength And Grief

April Ehrlich
A visitor sits in a pew at the United Church of Christ in Ashland on the first anniversary of the Almeda and Obenchain fires in the Rogue Valley.

The ongoing pandemic interrupted the biggest commemoration event planned for the first anniversary of the Almeda and South Obenchain Fires. So, people are remembering the fires in their own ways.

A year ago this week, the Rogue Valley was one of several parts of Oregon that saw historically destructive wildfires. Together, the Almeda and Obenchain fires destroyed more than 2,600 homes.

In one of the few signs of the anniversary, visitors to the United Church of Christ in Ashland could light candles, write messages of hope, or receive a prayer from the church’s Senior Minister, Christina Kukuk.

“There’s not a right way to experience this anniversary,” Kukuk says. “What I’ve been asking folks, or been encouraging folks to do is ask, ‘What does my body most need?’ And some for some people that’s going to be a cozy blanket and a cup of tea. Some people’s bodies are going to need to sleep all day today. Some people are going to need to call someone. And some folks needed to be in sacred space.”

Church member Doug Brown of Phoenix, was visiting to hear a prayer of support. He recalls September 8, 2020, when the Almeda Fire nearly destroyed his and his wife’s home.

“We had just moved here,” Brown says. “We had officially moved on September 5th to a new home for us. We came from California. And then, three days later, we’re evacuated.”

April Ehrlich/JPR
Phoenix resident Doug Brown and his wife evacuated from the Almeda Fire just days after moving to Oregon. Their house was spared.

After the fire, the couple returned to Phoenix to see entire blocks of homes reduced to ash. Brown says he feels fortunate that their home was spared, but he still feels immense grief for the loss of his community.

“It’s a process of trying to be strong,” he says. “And also accepting our weakness, our cries. A lot of tears shed and should be.”

A community march was planned along the Bear Creek Greenway, near the Almeda Fire’s origin to commemorate the anniversary. But it was cancelled at the last minute due to heavy smoke and health risks from the high rates of COVID-19 sweeping through the Rogue Valley.

March organizer Teresa Cisneros says the fire was especially detrimental to some minority communities in the Rogue Valley, just like the COVID-19 pandemic disproportionately affected migrant, tribal and undocumented people.

“To really respect that, we felt that it was important to take a responsible stand and not follow through so that we’re not risking more lives,” she says, though organizers were disappointed to cancel the event.

Cisneros says one year later, the community is slowly rebuilding but many people are still being left out because there’s not enough accessible information about how to get help.

“There is a significant population of people who still live in motorhomes, or still may be even camping, or couch surfing, and also living in hotels. And they don’t know what’s going to happen to them,” Cisneros says.

She says a lack of people of color in local government has contributed to these information gaps.

A mutual aid station was operated in Phoenix for the past 11 and a half months. Initially fire victims could get food, clothing and charge their phones. Later it was a place for furniture and other rebuilding resources. It finally closed last month.

Longtime volunteer Elib Christ-Dwyer says, despite the community’s generosity, there’s one shortage that’s still a big problem.

“It’s housing, housing, housing,” Christ-Dwyer says.

Several large mobile home parks burned in the Almeda Fire, destroying low-income housing. That exacerbated an existing housing shortage in the Rogue Valley.

 A Talent resident overlooks the destruction of his home on Sept 12, 2020, a few days after the Almeda Fire.
April Ehrlich
A Talent resident overlooks the destruction of his home on Sept 12, 2020, a few days after the Almeda Fire.

“It’s kind of a dismal picture to tell you the truth, for some of these families who are still looking for housing,” Christ-Dwyer says. “That housing is really hard to come by still here in the Rogue Valley.”

Developments are being rebuilt and FEMA set up trailers on several locations that burned in the Almeda Fire. But creating housing is a slow process.

Like the mutual aid project in Phoenix and other community support efforts in Talent and Ashland, Teresa Cisneros says the past year has shown the strength of the community and the response from people coming together. But, she says, the devastation and the unequal recovery is still very real.

“We can have a positive attitude and be sad, and be disappointed, and be hurt all at the same time,” she says.

The Almeda Fire commemoration march was meant to create a space for healing one year after a traumatic event, Cisneros says.

To make up for the cancellation, organizers have created a website called the Almeda Walk where viewers can do their own tour. It has guided meditations, art and poetry and is accessible in Spanish and English.