The Almeda Fire: One Year Later
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.
Coming Together, Building Resilience
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.’”
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.
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.
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.
Overcoming Hurdles, Finding Improvement
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.