On Tuesday, September 8, 2020 around 11:45 AM, working remotely at home, I went downstairs and looking out the windows, and noticed clouds of brown smoke billowing north of the house our family rented in Talent, OR. Checking for news on-line, I learned of a fire burning outside of Ashland. Given that our area was already on alert for high winds and super dry from drought, I started to monitor what was happening. Information was hard to find, but when I heard multiple sirens, I knew it was not good, especially when later in the afternoon, helicopters and planes started flying overhead dropping water and retardant at what I assumed was the far side of the I-5.
I told my kids what was happening and to pack some supplies just in case we were evacuated. Over the next 3-4 hours, I watched as neighbors packed up and drove off, even though there had been no official notice. I figured the fire was able to be contained and so packed for an overnight away just in case. I signed up for emergency notifications for my phone. Black and grey billowing clouds grew closer to the south and the east. Around 4 PM, I told my girls to load up the car and a few minutes later I heard someone going around pounding on doors and telling people to leave. We hurried to the car and drove to Talent Avenue and joined the line trying to get out of town. When we got to Colver Road, a Sheriff’s deputy directed us to HWY 99 south since the road north was closed. Since we had driven in a circle, I drove back to our house and picked up my CPAP machine and headed out again. I noticed some kids on bikes riding around the streets and people walking down the street as if nothing were happened. By the time we got back to HWY 99, a water plane flew extremely low over one of the fields on fire. Once again, we joined the traffic and turned to get on 1-5, noticing the flames reaching the apartments closer to I-5 and the gas stations and rest area near the freeway entrance. From there we joined a smoky procession to Ashland and found a hotel room. My wife, at work in Medford was eventually told to evacuate and having nowhere to go went to Grant’s Pass with a co-worker for an anxious night since she could not make it to us south to Ashland.
When I heard that the planes dropping water and retardant had stopped for the night, I knew that our home at 260 Rockfellow Place was gone. By then the fire had moved on to Phoenix and was threatening the Medford area. Information about what was happening was scarce. My wife was able to join use the next day, our total possessions, 2 automobiles, a couple of small bags of clothes and belongings, thankfully our important identification documents were with us and of course some computers and cell phones. Plus, my one pair of underwear. What I thought would be overnight turned out to be permanent. Why hadn’t I grabbed more clothes? Why hadn’t I grabbed my computer or the bills? Why hadn’t I slowed down and packed better?
Gone were my 6 guitars, including the classical acoustic I learned to play on when I was 15, a 40-year-old Martin D-35 and a black Gibson Les Paul Custom. Gone were my family notes I used for genealogy, my grandfathers framed prints from Scotland, my wife’s photos of her mother who died less than a year ago, our diplomas and paperwork for our job certifications. Gone were my 250 plus books, the chalice and goblets from my grandparents, our wedding china, and pictures and artwork from when our kids were growing up. Gone were my great-grandfather’s pocket New Testament which he carried with him in the Salvation Army and my seminary papers, sermon notes, dream journals and news clippings.
Much of what we lost may be with out value or meaning to anyone else, but they were markers and identifiers of who we are and where we came from. It is not the dollar value since these are irreplaceable but the physical anchor for our memories. Now they are stored in our heads and hearts, except for what I had saved before by digitizing over the years.
I have only given you my experience. However, what is being called the “Almeda fire” burned over 3, 200 acres over a 15-mile swath of the Rogue valley. 3 people died, over 2, 357 residential structures were destroyed, and and at least 3, 000 people have been displaced and in need of assistance and permanent housing in an area with few affordable rentals. All this in the midst of Covid-19.
3 weeks later, my sleep is fair, I am functioning adequately, and we have (thankfully) been able to find a new place to live. At times I feel sad, mad, depressed, displaced or like I want to hide, run away or cry. My sympathetic system is more on alert and vigilant to risk and danger, my reactions and frustrations sometimes stronger than I want or expect. We visited our home site and found a few mementos (one picture below) but mostly broken and burnt remnants buried in ash. We are still trying to find our mail. We have been blessed by co-workers and acquaintances, comforted by family from afar, thankful for what we do have which is life and each other.
I have neither time nor inclination to offer a theodicy or explanation about why this happened. I am not interested in hearing it from others. Maybe another time. For now, we grieve, along with many in our area, along with the scores of others around the world who have experienced loss and far worse. Sometimes, I can glimpse a different way of living with each other on this planet that is more just, more equitable, more peaceful and more life-giving than what we have seen so far. May it be so.
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