PHOENIX, Oregon — Betty Stevens stumbled down the street that had until a few hours ago seemed so familiar, her feet crunching through ash and debris as she entered the smoking remains of her neighborhood. There were melted street signs. Trees burned down to stumps. Power lines across the road. And everywhere she turned, choking, acrid smoke.
Sobbing behind the facemask she normally wears for her job as a hospital respiratory therapist helping coronavirus patients, Stevens, 31, video recorded herself earlier this week as she stumbled through the neighborhood, raw emotion in her voice, sometimes unable to form words, moaning in obvious pain.
“I think everything’s gone,” she says as the rising sun illuminates the destruction. “This doesn’t do justice to how terrifying and horrific this is, seeing how devastated everything is. Our homes are gone. Our homes are completely gone.”
The Alameda fire is one of more than 2,000 wildfires that have burned through the western United States in the past weeks, forcing tens of thousands of people to evacuate their homes from Colorado to California and Oregon, and enveloping millions in choking, toxic smoke considered hazardous to breathe.
In Oregon, the fire has blazed through more than 1 million acres, roughly half the typical damage in previous fires. And the National Weather Service issued a “red flag warning” Sunday, warning that winds of 40 miles an hour could “likely contribute to a significant spread” of fires in southern Oregon.
In Almeda, before the fire stopped burning, intense winds fanning the flames made the fire skip around, burning some neighborhoods to the ground and leaving other properties across the street untouched. Many of the destroyed homes were mobile homes or trailers housing some of the area’s poorest residents. Tens of thousands of people were evacuated in the initial fire as authorities feared it would burn into Medford, one of the state’s most populous cities with roughly 83,000 people.
“It is apocalyptic,” Democratic U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon said Sunday on the ABC program “This Week.” “I drove 600 miles up and down the state, and I never escaped the smoke. We have thousands of people who have lost their homes.”
A family loses everything. Diapers. Clothes. Food. Their home.
For families who have lived through the historic natural disaster, it has been a week of widespread loss.
For 15 agonizing hours last week, Stevens and her husband, Fred Andrews, had worried about the fate of their townhome in this suburb of Medford, Oregon, as the ferocious wind-driven Almeda wildfire raced toward their community.
At first, they figured the evacuation was just a precaution. Andrews assumed they’d be out for a few hours at most, and then they could return. That night, he fell asleep listing to the crackle of police radios on his iPhone, exhausted from trying to make sense of what he was hearing about a fire that was supposedly two towns away. While he slept, Stevens picked up an extra shift at the Asante Rogue Regional Medical Center, helping patients and filling in for colleagues who couldn’t get past roadblocks.
She got home just after 2 a.m., but was too anxious to sleep. Almost everything they owned was in that 1,600-square-foot blue-grey townhome and its garage, from their new SUV to baby Eleanor’s birth certificate issued 23 months ago. Diapers. Clothes. Food. It was the first place they’d ever owned, a real home for their little family.
For hours, she worried about its fate, and what had happened to the neighbors who’d become friends, who’d brought over cookies and welcome gifts in the 11 months the family lived in the 18-unit complex. So she slid into her Birkenstock sandals, drove to the Home Depot near her home and started walking into the fire.
“Not knowing was absolutely tearing me up,” says Stevens a few days later, reflecting on her dangerous decision to walk alone, in the middle of the night, into a disaster zone. “It wasn’t just my life. It was everyone else’s I was carrying. This was so devastating because I knew these people. It wasn’t just a neighborhood. It was a community. And I realized I had the responsibility to tell 17 other families they didn’t have a home, either.”
Cause of fire remains unknown
Authorities say at least 600 homes were damaged or destroyed as the fire rampaged through Ashland, Talent and Phoenix before firefighters stopped it close to the Medford city limits. Although the main fire started around 11 a.m., on Tuesday near an Ashland skatepark and began racing north, several other smaller fires broke out as the winds threw embers into neighborhoods and along Highway 99.
Police arrested a man they said started a fire around 5 p.m., about half a mile from Stevens’ home, as the main fire approached. At least four people are confirmed dead, and the cause of the first fire remains under investigation.
Medford-area evacuee Steven Ward, 29, left one of the area’s homeless encampments just two days before the fire broke out and burned through the area.
“We had some friends at the camp who had to jump into the creek to escape,” Ward says. “It’s a story worthy of Hollywood what they went through.”
Over the weekend, Ward was living in a broken-down RV parked at a local Walmart. Dozens of homeless evacuees had set up tents or parked campers at the store.
“Everybody has lost something,” says Ward.
A community faces its greatest loss
The skies were still clogged with smoke Saturday and Sunday. Firefighters were patrolling the burn area and members of the Oregon National Guard were enforcing a closure order as police cruised the empty streets for possible looters.
Saturday morning, Scott Coash kept a wary eye out for trespassers as he and his wife, Cindy, walked into their undamaged but largely deserted neighborhood a few blocks from where Stevens’ home used to stand. Carrying a cooler of sandwiches in water in one hand, a gun on one hip and a bottle of hand sanitizer on the other, Coash counted himself lucky– the flames were diverted by a hill across the street from their home, and the fire burned away despite winds throwing burning embers into his yard.
Approaching their home, Coash, 64, set down the cooler, unholstered his 9 mm Glock and chambered a round, the unmistakable “click-clack” echoing through the empty streets as he pulled out his keys and opened the door. Coash didn’t want Cindy, 62, entering the house until he’d had a chance to make sure no one was lurking inside. Like many people forced to leave their homes during a wildfire, Coash was worried looters would sneak in the way they have in other areas, including after 2018 Camp Fire in Paradise, California.
“This is our Katrina. This is our Paradise. You see it on TV but you can never understand unless you go through it,” said Coash, a boiler plant operator at a local university. “You don’t understand the full effect until you walk through it, smell it, see it.”
Stevens was struggling to understand the devastation. She found herself trying to help other fire victims with belongings she no longer owns. At one point, she offered up a portable air conditioner before realizing she didn’t have it anymore.
“We woke up that morning wondering how we were going to survive,” her husband says.
Andrews says he hasn’t watched the video his wife took of their home. “I was basically not allowing myself to feel anything.”
Hospital staff devastated by fire
Fire victim Noeme Alvarez, 42, was working as a housekeeper at the hospital as the flames consumed the three-bedroom home of 15 years she had shared with her husband, Jesus, and their five children.
“I couldn’t think straight, calling my family constantly,” she says. “I was so worried. It was a hard day.”
Jesus and the kids fled to his brother’s house. Alvarez joined them after her shift. They prayed and offered thanks.
The family worries a different wildfire burning a few miles away might race toward them if the weather changes.
“Sometimes I think it’s just a dream,” says Jesus Alvarez, 46, who was home the day of the fire because he had badly cut his hand the week before while working as a carpenter. “We lost a lot of things. But we will stay together. We are together. That makes the family strong.”
Sheri Croy, who also worked for the Asante health care system, fled the fire with her family. After stuffing their new puppy, a second dog and a bearded dragon lizard named Mushu into their car, Croy told her husband she wanted a few minutes to gather documents and momentoes.
“He looked outside at this black wall coming toward us and he’s like, ‘there’s no time,'” says Croy. “There was definitely crying and screaming from me in the car.”
The fire took a particular toll on workers at Asante, the region’s largest employer, with at least 80 workers losing their homes in a single day. Now, the health care system’s managers have set up food banks, laundry services and clothing drives to help its displaced employees, many of whom continued going to work because patients still need care.
Family refuses to leave Oregon, looks to rebuild
In the first few hours after they learned their house had been destroyed, Stevens and Andrews contemplated leaving Jackson County entirely, maybe back to Portland or even to New York. They’d been trying to get pregnant again for months, and maybe this was a sign to give up, give in, head out.
Andrews had spent the day on the phone, dealing with the mortgage and the car loan and their insurance. Like many who lost their homes, Andrews and Stevens don’t yet know whether insurance would cover rebuilding, or what federal aid might be available. A relative established an online donation fund and friends quickly chipped in $700.
Exhausted, Stevens collapsed into bed. She woke up a few hours later to discover people had poured in more than $20,000 toward the fund. It’s now over $25,000.
The display of support has convinced the family to stay and rebuild.
“We needed to see that we mattered to this community, and they’ve shown us that,” Stevens says. “It would be wrong to take their kindness and leave. We need to stay and pay it forward. These are people who are so-called to action – they’ve dropped everything and ransacked their own homes to help us. And not just us. All the others. I have never been part of a community so willing to help. I don’t think we could live anywhere else.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Oregon wildfires: Near Medford fire, families, workers lose everything