We are collecting stories from our community members here to process, heal, and prepare for the future.

Click here to add your story.

First Wildfire

Cecilia – September 24, 2020

After moving to southern Oregon from Florida, I didn’t have much thought or worry about wildfires. I knew that wildfires and smoke were a thing that happened in the west and in the rogue valley, but after almost the entire summer with no serious smoke or fires threatening the valley, I thought we were in the clear. I am a trained wildland firefighter and I have a lot of experience on prescribed burns, but I never fought a wildfire before or had one close to my house. On Tuesday, September 8th, in an afternoon meeting via zoom, my coworkers and I were discussing the smoke and the fire that had started in Ashland. We were all keenly aware of how close Ashland was to us, but all agreed that we all live far enough away, and the cities between Ashland and Medford are pretty urban, so it wouldn’t come near us.

 

As the afternoon progressed, the fire got worse, all of Jackson County entered emergency level 1. I packed a bag, poorly, just in case I had to leave. I contacted my parents and they told me to bring essentials, Passport, ID, medicine, all of my dog’s food and medicine, clothes, and a handful of sentimental items. I should be able to carry everything, including the pets, in one trip to my car just in case. I decided that I was going to evacuate Medford if where I lived reached level 2. I have a friend in Grants Pass, I could spend the night at her place and just be safe and not rushed. I asked my friend if it was okay and she said of course and I expected not to see her that night anyways. By 7:30pm, where I live was on emergency level 2, I packed up my things and left. It took me 5 trips to get everything into my car. I thought it was okay because “I had time”. It was so surreal seeing everyone pack their things as well, and to see the ash coming down and smelling the smoke while I packed. I was talking earlier to someone who had evacuated to my apartment complex after she had to leave Talent. How she was home one moment and had to get everything and leave the next. I was running through my head “what do I absolutely need”. I felt like I had so much and so little at the same time. I made amends with the items I left behind and knew I might not ever see any of those items again.

 

I was listening to the police scanner as I drove to Grants Pass. The area where I live had just hit evacuation level 3. A spot fire had occurred on Table Rock Rd, less than a mile from my complex. I was so anxious, did I forget anything? I did, I didn’t have any of my dog’s medicine. I didn’t have my favorite pair of shoes, I didn’t have my work uniform. Fortunately, an hour later, the scanner said the fire was out and people could return to their homes. I was pretty sure my apartment was still standing, I didn’t hear any chatter about saving it or ways to fight the fire around the complex. One of my coworkers called to tell me that the mall was on fire. I was freaking out at that point. Although I was safe in Grants Pass with my pets, passport, and a couple days worth of clothes, I didn’t know when I would be able to return home, if I had a home to go back to. The mall ended up not being on fire, but there was a fire in the tree area next to the parking lot. There was so much news floating around, I wasn’t sure what was true and what wasn’t. I didn’t know what was on fire, if I was over or under reacting.

 

My friend and I made a plan to escape Grants Pass if the fire got there. We realized it would have a long way to go in order to get to Grants Pass, but there were fires popping up everywhere. The area was dry, we had a once in a generation wind event, anything could happen. We settled on going to her brother’s house in Las Vegas if Grants Pass was under fire. It seems illogical now, but both of us are from out of state and don’t have many connections close by. My closest connections were in Eugene and Portland, with fires along the route there, we knew we might not be able to get there. That night, I eventually went to sleep. I awoke to no news about my apartment complex being burned down which I saw as a good sign. Everyone said Table Rock Rd was fine and no structures were burned there. The evacuation order for where I live was reduced to a level 1, I decided just to spend the day in Grants Pass with my friend to calm down. I’m glad I did, as a fire broke out in Central Point moments later. That fire was also taken care of quickly and people could return home. Around 7pm, I made the decision to head home.

 
 
 

It was so nerve wracking. I didn’t unpack my go bags until 2 weeks later. I left things in my car that I wanted to keep but could stay in my car and weren’t “valuable”. I had a trip to Florida planned and was nervous about leaving my dog in case they had to evacuate again. Should I give them all of her medicine? Will she be okay? After the fire, I kept running through my head what I would do differently. I would have a bag packed at all times to be able to grab and go filled with clothes and my passport and other important documents that I don’t access all the time. I would start loading my car sooner and have things put closer together and labeled. I’ve completely changed the way I leave my house. I keep all important documents on my person, or next to my door so I can just grab them and go. I wish I had put more thought into a wildfire entering my community and threatening my home. I didn’t think it could happen here, and

 

according to people who have lived here their whole lives, neither did they. As time passes, I realize how traumatized I was during the experience and how my first instinct is to pack up and go. Now I feel more prepared for a fire if it threatens my home again, what I’m going to take and what I’ll leave. I also feel like I need a lot less stuff, the next time I move, I’m definitely throwing some things out. I wish I had taken the time to research what I need and how to evacuate before this happened. But I’ve been spending my days researching how to better prepare and buying supplies and donating money to people who have lost everything.

Rise Up

Sara – Sep 25, 2020

On the morning of the September 8th, I had just finished a work call when I heard the fire engines go out. It felt like my spirit froze to the core when I saw the truck drive by. My older sons had just left the house for a dental appointment across town. I began receiving Nixle alerts on my phone about the grass fire. Communication was difficult because my phone began to have trouble dialing and making connections for calls. Then, I started to see traffic back-up out on Siskiyou Blvd and knew the traffic was starting to be bad, and my concern heightened for the community evacuation needs especially with the wind direction towards Talent and Phoenix and roadway congestion.

 

It’s hard to put in words the pain you have seeing the smoke roll up the valley and knowing in front of it are families in danger. One way I’ve dealt with the sleepless nights, the sadness and emotions is with music. I made a playlist for the Almeda Fire. The music says something for me that words cannot express. We will Rise Up unafraid and do it a thousand times again.

 

Another way I’ve managed my sadness is with connecting to others in the community. I think we all have moments in life where we self-criticize, where second guess our decisions and I had those moments on September 8th but, they will not keep me from rising up, from connecting with others and from processing my grief – the Almeda Fire and fires across Oregon can bring us closer as a community.

Watching the fire maps and alerts while preparing for evacuation

Andy and Family – September 24, 2020

We live in SOU’s family housing units. My mother-in-law was in town for the weekend and was leaving Tuesday morning. We had planned for a labor day trip to Hyatt lake but paused because the gas station clerk said there was a fire up north of Hyatt (Grizzly Creek fire). On labor day night smoke filled into Ashland and our cat kept waking us up, we think because she was smelling the smoke and was alert.

 

On Tuesday morning my mother-in-law left before sunrise. I was working from home and actually monitoring the Grizzly Creek fire when I received a text message from a graduate school cohort member. She was asking about the local fires and I assured her that the Grizzly Creek was being worked towards containment. Then my nixle alert system messaged be about the Almeda fire.

 

We prepared for evacuation, we were four minutes from where the fire started. We could see the smoke rising in the west as winds thrashed the trees outside our apartment. Our dog was alert and cautiously followed us around the apartment, watching us pack our camping gear but confused because we were anxious. For the next several hours we watched the alert systems and text messaged friends, family, and my cohort members to stay in contact and maintain a sense of connection that was shaken. Even though 40mph winds worked around outside the complex, it felt really quiet and ominous for our neighbors north west of Ashland.

We communicated with friends living in Talent and Phoenix. They were able to evacuate. We waited and worried and watched the fire maps and alerts with our car packed, comforting our three year old son, hoping that everyone west was able to get out of the fires path. The sky was oddly clear outside our apartment the night of the fire, winds still blowing. It didn’t matter though, our hearts were heavy in preparation for the short and devastating fire season to come, thinking and hoping everyone was okay, unable to know for sure.

A Practice Run

Tara – September 24, 2020

On Tuesday morning shortly after 11:00, I was working from my parents’ home in Ashland, above Lithia Park. I was on a Zoom call with all of my colleagues when I got a text from my partner: “Fire in Ashland”, with a blurry picture. A few minutes later, the Nixle alerts began rolling in by text, email, and phone. Several of my colleagues were receiving the same information, and one by one we excused ourselves from the call to begin preparing for evacuation — just in case.

My parents were out of town (on their first overnight away since the pandemic began), so I went to their “Emergency Procedures” file, only to realize that the list didn’t give me all of the information I needed. Where’s the safe deposit box key, and their passports? Which medical supplies? What jewelry?

I also realized very quickly that their 5-minute list gave me no indication of what they’d like saved if we had more time — which, in this case, I had, because I hadn’t received an actual “Go!” evacuation notice yet. I couldn’t get a hold of them on the phone, so I started in my own room instead, gathering up my passport and birth certificate, cash, wallet, devices and chargers… the 5-minute list was easy, as was the go-bag to tide me over for a few days. It was the next step that was harder. What do I take? My favorite dance shoes, or my quilts in progress? How about my vintage sewing machine, or my mom’s and grandmother’s wedding dresses, or my favorite books? With limited space in the car, the question became: “What is actually irreplaceable, versus what just feels irreplaceable?”

I eventually got my parents on the phone, and they walked me through their requests, describing where the meds were stored, which pieces of art they’d like me to tuck into the car. They were on the road, coming home from their getaway, but they were snarled in traffic in Talent. At one point, they were in standstill traffic and could see flames alongside the road. They crawled in circles for hours, but there was no way for them to get back to Ashland, so they headed out of town and got a room in Jacksonville for the night. That left me alone at the house, packing the car on my own.

Throughout this process, I was getting my fire updates from a Facebook page, where some folks were relaying information from the local police scanners. I wanted to use a more official source, but there was none — it felt like I had to fend for myself. The Nixle alerts weren’t enough to quell my anxiety, and I knew how fast conditions could change. Then, my internet went out, which meant that I was also without cell service or a landline. I felt completely cut off, and it was deeply scary to go to bed that night knowing that the only way I would know if I needed to evacuate was if someone came and knocked on the front door.

I barely slept, instead running through my exit plan: get out of bed, grab the pile of phones and chargers from where they were all plugged in for last-minute charging, put on the respirator, collect the dog and his leash, put on shoes at the front door, get in the already-packed car, and drive… where? I knew traffic had been a nightmare earlier in the day, but I had no internet to check the current road status. My plan ended there.

Luckily for me, the fire kept moving steadily away from Ashland, and I never got the order to leave the house. I was safe, my parents were safe, our home was safe. After they arrived back in Ashland the next day, we began revisiting our emergency plan. Our out-of-town family gathering point in Talent had burned to the ground, so we chose a few new places — one in each direction — that were further away. We updated and annotated our 5- and 15-minute lists, and showed each other where in the house to find everything on each list. Our evacuation route had been so jammed with traffic that we all re-packed our go-bags in backpacks so that we would be able to evacuate on bike or foot if necessary. We picked up print atlases of Oregon and California to use if the cell service goes down again and we can’t rely on our phone GPS.

The Almeda fire was traumatic for the whole family, but we all feel deeply grateful to have had the opportunity to practice our plan, experience its gaps firsthand, and have the opportunity to be better prepared for the next wildland fire.

Close
Loading...
Loading...