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Wildfire

The Almeda Fire: One Year Later

A couple embrace Thursday while touring an area devastated by the Almeda Fire in Phoenix, Ore.
John Locher
/
AP
A couple embrace Thursday while touring an area devastated by the Almeda Fire in Phoenix, Ore.

This week marks a year since wildfires destroyed thousands of homes in Jackson County over the Labor Day weekend.

The Almeda Fire was particularly catastrophic. On the morning of Sept. 8, 2020, it swept through the Rogue Valley within a matter of hours, destroying more than 2,600 homes between Ashland, Talent, Phoenix and Medford. It was the most destructive wildfire in Oregon’s recorded history. That afternoon, the South Obenchain Fire, near Eagle Point and Butte in Jackson County, burned another 33 homes and dozens of other buildings.

The Labor Day fires challenged the Rogue Valley in ways that have often seemed insurmountable, but people here took those challenges head on. Grassroots groups gathered donations like food, clothing, and housing; some people took a hard look at the region’s disaster responses to find ways to improve; and community members connected over stories about grief and resilience.

Jefferson Public Radio takes a look back at a sample of our coverage from this past year to remember the stories that the Rogue Valley helped us tell.

LISTEN: The Jefferson Exchange, Wed. 9AM: Remembering The Big Fires, One Year Later

Coming Together, Building Resilience

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Erik Neumann/JPR
Adriana Hays and Bryan Flores after they evacuated to the Jackson County Expo on Sept. 10, 2020.

On Sept. 8, 2020, after residents evacuated to an emergency shelter at the Jackson County Expo, many found themselves homeless in their own towns, including Bryan Flores and Adriana Hays, students of Phoenix High School.

“I’m thinking, ‘This feels like a normal day,’” Hays reflected a couple days after the fire. “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.’”

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

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Much of Talent and Phoenix remained closed for a week after the fire as crews restored power and cleared roadways of debris. People who didn't evacuate their homes that remained intact then faced a dilemma: if they left their neighborhood, they might not be able to get back in because of road blocks.

That's when a group of cyclists hopped on their cargo bikes carrying hundreds of gallons of water and boxes of food for people who couldn't leave their neighborhoods.

READ: Ashland Cyclists Bring Water, Food To People Stuck In Evacuation Zones

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Rogue Food Unites
Food being prepared at Sammich in Ashland for victims of the Almeda Fire.

It wasn't easy recovering from a catastrophic wildfire in the middle of a pandemic, but community members and businesses got creative.

With thousands of residents displaced after the fires, a nonprofit called Rogue Food Unites connected people's food needs with restaurants struggling to make a profit during the pandemic. Rogue Food Unites continued providing food to wildfire survivors for several months.

READ: 'Rogue Food Unites' Helps Residents Displaced By Fire And Restaurants Struck By Pandemic

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Sydney Dauphinais
Many local restaurants have donated to the resource center, as well as various community members who deliver non-perishables.

Many of the homes destroyed in Talent and Phoenix belonged to Latino families who mostly spoke Spanish at home. That added an extra challenge to them as they sought resources to recover from their losses.

El Tapatio in Ashland then became a hub of resources for those affected, also doubling as a gathering space for the area’s Latino community.

READ: Ashland Restaurant Is The 'Glue' For A Latino Community Hard-Hit By Wildfires

Overcoming Hurdles, Finding Improvement

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Erik Neumann / JPR News
Medford resident Mary Martin lost her home and cat during the Almeda Fire. She was told to evacuate by a police officer before the fire destroyed the mobile home park where she lived.

Shortly after the fires, many people wondered why there wasn’t more emergency evacuation information. The gaps in Jackson County’s alert system left many without critical information. And the same type of system is used across Oregon and California.

READ: County Alert System Left Many Without Notifications During The Almeda Fire

 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.

By June, a deeper analysis of Jackson County's response to the fires called on government leaders to create a more coordinated emergency plan.

While the report commended their swift response to an overwhelming situation, it also highlighted key weaknesses including miscommunication, understaffing, and insufficient training.

READ: Report Analyzes Jackson County’s Almeda Fire Response, Calls For Better Coordination

Abby Bucolo Attends Online Class
Courtesy of Courtney Bucolo
Five-year-old Abby Bucolo attends her kindergarten classes online, weeks after the Almeda Fire destroyed her home.

Shortly after the fire, students faced extra challenges as their families tried to recover from their losses just weeks before school was supposed to start. Some students started showing signs of extreme stress and anxiety, causing school leaders and parents to consider resuming in-person classes in the middle of a pandemic that called for social distancing.

READ: In The Wake Of The Wildfires, Some Children Are Suffering From Extreme Stress And Anxiety

Chelsee Parker, 15, plays a video game in a shed that serves as her temporary home with her parents. Her mother, Robin Parker, says the insurance settlement won't be enough to cover all the losses from the fire.
Chelsee Parker, 15, plays a video game in a shed that serves as her temporary home with her parents. Her mother, Robin Parker, says the insurance settlement won't be enough to cover all the losses from the fire.

Meanwhile thousands of Oregonians who applied for federal disaster assistance discovered that they wouldn't get the help they needed to rebuild. That left Rogue Valley residents like Chelsee Parker, 15, without a home, living in a shed on her parents' property in Talent.

A joint investigation between Jefferson Public Radio and NPR into FEMA claims revealed wide fluctuations in approval rates and denials of people who met aid criteria.

READ: As Western Wildfires Worsen, FEMA Is Denying Most People Who Ask For Help

Looking Ahead

This aerial image shows homes leveled by the Almeda Fire in Phoenix, Ore., on Sept. 15, 2020. During last year's fire season in Oregon, FEMA didn't approve roughly 70% of claims, after accounting for suspected fraud.
This aerial image shows homes leveled by the Almeda Fire in Phoenix, Ore., on Sept. 15, 2020. During last year's fire season in Oregon, FEMA didn't approve roughly 70% of claims, after accounting for suspected fraud.

The Almeda and Obenchain fires has left many here wondering: will there be a next time? And if so, when?

Forest fires are a natural part of the landscape in Oregon, but in recent years this type of urban destruction has been more common in places like California’s wine country or further south.

Local fire agencies and environmentalists say the wildfire risk to Oregon communities is getting higher, and everyone in the Rogue Valley needs to know how to evacuate quickly.

READ: ‘This Isn’t Going Away’: Climate Scientists And Fire Officials Reflect On The Almeda Fire

A field of barley and native Southern Oregon wildflowers bloom in front of a stand of burned trees.
April Ehrlich
Barley and native plants blossom in mid-June, eight months after the Almeda Fire tore through the greenway. The county planted a seed mixture with native and barley seeds to prevent soil erosion.

In addition to thousands of homes, the Almeda Fire destroyed a large stretch of the Bear Creek Greenway, a multi-use path and urban park at the center of the Rogue Valley. For weeks after the fire, the murky creek weaved through a dark expanse of deep gray ash.

But there's still hope in this small forest in which fire offers a new beginning.

READ: The Almeda Fire Was Catastrophic, But There’s Hope In This Small Forest