by Sally Blanchard
When the Almeda wildfire blew up in southern Oregon on September 8, two fires combined and swept quickly through the towns of Talent and Phoenix between Medford and Ashland causing significant damage and loss to both communities.
Driven by unusual strong easterly winds, the Almeda fire destroyed 3,261 residential properties, 347 commercial properties, and 11 public properties. Forty percent of the students in the Talent-Phoenix school district became homeless. Three deaths were reported.
On that day, pastors and lay leaders from Ashland and Medford United Methodist Churches found themselves in the position of not just worrying about their parishioners, but their own parsonages and churches. Now, a month later, they are helping to pick up the pieces and move forward with their surrounding communities.
Rev. Brett Strobel, pastor of Ashland United Methodist Church, was on the Oregon coast celebrating his anniversary with his wife when he heard that a wildfire had broken out near his home in Talent, a small town between Medford and Ashland.
“We had about 24 hours of not knowing if we had a home to come back to. It was a tremendous relief to finally get here and see that it was still standing,” Strobel said. “The fire came about two blocks from my house.”
Strobel reached out to Oregon-Idaho Interim Conference Disaster Response Coordinator Dan Moseler and then Rev. Ben Devoid, pastor of Medford UMC to get updates and determine how they could help.
Devoid was at home when the fires started, and flames came within half a mile of his home. He said “it was hard to find the congregation …you just couldn’t find people. They were gone. People had to leave so quickly. It’s a really chaotic time, looking for people.”
Officials from the city and Jackson County reached out to him and the nearby Presbyterian church to provide a place for homeless people to stay overnight. With help from the Board of Health and a call to Crater Lake District Superintendent John Tucker, church members set up to receive displaced people.
“We got all ready, but each time they were getting ready to send a family, the Red Cross would come through, or the United Way, and they would provide a hotel room which we thought was good because we don’t have showers,” Devoid said.
The church serves meals regularly to houseless people in Medford, so the congregation pitched in to increase the number of meals and delivered them to the shelter across the street.
Medford UMC began to collect good furniture and small appliances for people to use to set up new households. The local Habitat for Humanity is helping to store some of that furniture as it is donated.
Strobel asked Barry Braden, a lay member from Ashland and an Assistant Conference Disaster Response Coordinator, to help with receiving and distributing UMCOR relief kits. The UMCOR West Depot quickly sent 19 pallets of hygiene kits, cleaning kits and school supply kits arrived in Medford and he coordinated volunteers to drive them in pickups to the relief hubs. Cleaning kits were also in high demand to clean and sanitize new living sites, whether it was a tent or temporary shelter.
“We ran out of school supply kits first. A Facebook post alerted school teachers to get the word out and they were all picked up by two days later,” Braden said.
Many migrant workers lived in a mobile home park in Phoenix where all the trailers were burned to the ground and many vehicles were destroyed. Over 2,000 evacuated to shelters and more than 100 stayed with friends or in motel rooms temporarily. As the need for longer term housing evolves, the upfront costs for first and last month’s rent and deposit will be big hurdles for the families that were struggling financially before the fire.
Braden explained that FEMA (Federal Emergency Management) has set up in Medford and Ashland to help process insurance and other paperwork for citizens. But the migrant families could not find help there. El Tapatio, a long-established restaurant in Ashland, opened a relief center in their parking lot. The owners are well connected in the Hispanic community and are working to help the large population of undocumented workers find resources and complete paperwork for assistance.
“One thing I’ve noticed in all this is the love demonstrated,” Braden said. “When disaster happens, people care for people and it’s obvious.”
He listened to stories of survivors in Talent and heard about needs for the basics, shelter, food, and clean water. At the Expo Center in Medford, a relief center was set up to provide food and water and evacuees pitched tents or slept in cars. The Red Cross and many other community groups brought donations and volunteers to help.
Strobel observed a man from Phoenix who lost his restaurant in the fire. He had a mobile food truck that he drove to the relief center and cooked hamburgers and gave food away to the people. He said it was heartening to see so many community groups helping and donations of supplies pouring in for the survivors.
“Several of the volunteers had also lost everything and they were coming in to help other people who had lost stuff,” he said. “And to me, that is so remarkable that the ones who should be ministered to were the ones who are ministering to others. And they’re working very, very hard. To me that’s incredibly humbling and inspirational.”
Moseler recounted the story of a pharmacist in Talent, “whose business was damaged, and he couldn’t open. But people needed their prescriptions. So, he came to the relief center and brought a laptop and provided access to their prescription records. It was the kind of thing where you saw people stepping up where they could, even when impacted themselves.”
All leaders involved see needs evolving quickly in this disaster and a need to continually adapt their efforts.
“I think people are still in shock about what has happened,” Strobel said. “Spiritual care is going to become a really big need.”
Editor’s note: The needs of the fire survivors are many and recovery is expected to be a long road. The best way to help is support the Oregon-Idaho Conference Disaster Response Fund. Visit www.umoi.org/give to learn more.