Legislators hear community stories from 2020 wildfires22 min read
The House and Senate committees on wildfire recovery heard Wednesday from people affected by the Almeda and South Obenchain fires. Many had no advance notice of the danger and fled with just the clothes on their back. They shared stories of terror, homelessness, despair, and loss of community. Susanna Perillat started with Susanna’s Story.
Susanna Perillat: My neighbor, when I pulled in and came running into me in a panic, he’s got two young boys and he was like, “Susanna. How can we get out of here?” We could see the monster wave coming over the rooftops in the neighborhood. And apparently it just shot down the railroad tracks, like a tunnel, like a wind tunnel to our neighborhood. We headed towards Applegate cause it looked like clear skies, but we immediately ran into a blockage. We did not get notifications. We just saw the smoke and everybody going in the opposite direction. What set in was the memory of people dying in their cars in Paradise (California). That overtook us. And there was a kind of panic about that, that I do not want to die in my car, in a fire.
John Q. Murray: Regina and mobile home park manager Kathy Kali were in the first neighborhood to ignite.
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Regina: I was able to convince my next door neighbor to drive out through the smoke and I could not. So I turned back around in my truck and went back, to the bluff above our garden and the creek. And there were seven of my other neighbors, two little kids, and we made it through the creek and across the blackberries to 99. The fire was coming at us from both the left and the right, which would be the north and the south. We didn’t know if we’re going to make it across the creek, but we did. And we were trying to convince all the neighbors that they needed to pack up and go. And I think, my having been rescued by my brother, we got people to get up and pack out and go because no one had any warning or they had no idea what was going on. And we were telling them that the fire was just going to run through the Greenway and they needed to get out.
Kathy Kali: It is cool that I’m going right after Regina. I was the manager of the park that was the very first neighborhood to burn. So we saw the smoke coming. We got no alerts whatsoever, and I literally was out banging on doors, leading the evacuation—I was the evacuation because I was the only person who knew where everybody lived and where the seniors lived and where the people with disabilities lived and where the veterans lived. And so I was out banging on doors. And then about 20 minutes into the evacuation, homes in the park were burning already. I also want to echo what many people have said about having working alerts and having sirens. God forbid, if this had happened at night, we would have had major loss of life in our park. So I really hope for sirens and some better emergency alert system.
James Williams: My name is James Williams and my wife, Laurie, and I— we lost everything we owned. When we found out, we had six minutes to get out of our house, the flames were already in the park. We didn’t hear anything on the news, there was no warning system. There is no nothing. We didn’t get a text. The only way we knew anything about this was through social media. We were able to get nothing out of our house and the lifetime of my wife and I did together for 35 years. All of our baby pictures, everything’s gone. We didn’t have, if we had a half an hour and a half hour or something, we would have, we’d walked out with the clothes on our backs. I had flip flops shorts and a t-shirt.
John Q. Murray: Maig Tinnin was concerned about homeless persons temporarily living in the Greenway.
Maig Tinnan: When I learned that the fire was moving quickly through the Greenway, myself and a close friend, went out onto the South end of the Greenway in Medford to check on many of our houseless friends and neighbors and warn them about what was going on. Most of the people that we spoke to had no idea that the fire was currently destroying much of Talent and Phoenix.
I remember young one woman’s voice and tears so vividly as she realized that the few belongings that she still owned pictures of her children were burning in her tent on the Greenway in Phoenix. And she did not know if her campmates and neighbors were safe or also burning. Throughout the night, Medford continued to be on watch for evacuation. At any minute we might have to evacuate and there seemed to be no plan for how to provide transportation
I was very terrified from what I was seeing and hearing and realizing that people were already being left behind. There was no location established where people could check in for information. And that’s really a key when people don’t have phones or other access to information that housed people do. I was in touch with city and service professionals during this time and there was not a serious plan in place for these urgent needs that were being identified.
Jennie DeBunce: My name is Jennie DeBunce. September 8th was horrific. My housemates and I evacuated after watching the fire grow closer for hours and unable to get reliable information on the situation, getting into our cars. I could hear propane tanks exploding. 10 days later, we came back to our home, which thankfully survived blocks from where the fire ended. My mother and my grandmother both lost their homes and everything they had in the fire. Two generations worth of memories and all of my sister and my things. Neither of them have been able to find long-term housing in all of this time . I know my mother was offered $4,000 for her manufactured homes. But anything available for your purchase or in rentals has been far too expensive for either of their incomes. And I know there are many more community members that are also having trouble.
Brian Flores: My name is Brian Flores. It was very shocking, nerve-wracking, and terrifying. Similar to many other people, we never got an alert. We were only watching closely on social media hearing, What would happen? Unfortunately we did not know how devastating the wildfire could be. And we only packed lightly, thinking that we would be able to return to our homes after. Unfortunately that wasn’t the case later on, but I had to stay behind with my father just so I could pull him out of the house. He was too worried about collecting his tools. He’s a car mechanic. And until I had dragged him out of the house, and into the truck along with my dog, we left. We couldn’t pull out anything that he owned and that was his main job. So we were stuck without any source of income even after the fire.
Tania Pineda: My name is Tania Pineda. Again, as many other residents, I never got a notification of this fire. I logged on to Facebook and that’s how I found out about this fire. I was able to leave my job just hours before the fire reached my home. I was just able to obtain my important documents and a couple of clothing pieces for my daughter, who I arranged my parents to pick up from daycare since she was also close to the fire.
When we drive to Phoenix my five-year-old looks at where we used to live. And she mentions, and she asks, ‘Where’s my home?’ She’s five. She’s able to recognize our structure and she asks, ‘Where’s my home?’ and then, that just breaks me to pieces, knowing that my daughter has that memory engraved in her, that the place she called home and she grew up and she learned how to take her first steps is no longer there. And it’s still sitting there in debris and no one has cleaned it up.
Daniel Espana: My name is Daniel Espana and I’m one of the many Latinos who lost everything on September eight, and when I mean everything, I lost, like everything, like family photo albums, pictures, important documents that I still have not tried to retrieve yet because of the pandemic makes them more difficult. I was able to find a home within those four days of the fire because of my employer and my coworkers. They helped me secure a roof over my head. But but those four days that I was, that was for better term, “homeless” each night was something I do not wish upon anybody. I still have a lot of family, a lot of friends who I grew up with who are still couch-hopping and they’re still living in the motels and the hotels. They’re not getting any answers. I want to be the voice for those who have the language barrier to hold all of you accountable to share that our family, the community can return back to our neighborhoods. And the reason is because we fear we’re not being able because of the lack of voices being involved in the rebuilding groups. So basically what our community is asking is, to keep us informed and keep us in your guys’ mind when they’re rebuilding an affordable housing.
Pam Halbert: My name is Pam Halbert and I moved here July 1st to be with my aging mother. And we were combining our households when the fires struck and we lost everything. I’m sorry, this is still very emotional. I’ve been working hard. I’ve been doing all of the paperwork and the running and the running and the running for assistance anywhere we can find it for my mom. She just, the trauma was too much. She’s 82. I’m 63. And. I hit my wall a week ago. So I’m very emotional. I have to apologize. Who would ever think, that we’d lose? We lived in the mountains all of our life and wildfire to us is a thing in the mountains, not in a city, And to lose everything, and to face starting over at our ages is very daunting and overwhelming. We lived in a mostly older mobile home park. So we did not have very adequate insurance. We lost way more than we were compensated for. I still consider us homeless. We are currently renting two bedrooms in someone else’s home. So we are visitors, even though we have no rent, we’re paying utilities, but it’s very difficult to not have your own space. Trauma, the emotional trauma, the physical trauma, the uncertainty of our futures. It’s just a lot to handle. Nobody will talk to you in person. Nobody will make allowances or help you or understand and the website doesn’t work, the websites are broken. Nobody fixes them. We try to follow the rules we try to do, but the agencies are asking you this to do and cross all the T’s and dot all the I’s. But the system’s broken and it’s not working. And so many people have given up and so many people have left. It shouldn’t be that hard to get a hand up, but that’s what it is. It is a battle. We live in a battlefield and it’s a battlefield just to get help.
Mark Krause: I’m Mark Krause and I’ve lived in the area since 2007. I’m a faculty at Southern Oregon University and my family, we lost our home in the Almeda Fire on September 8th. I was home with my children and we lived in Talent about three, three to four miles from where the fire started. And I was messaging with friends in that area of Ashland asking if they needed to evacuate to my place. And before that, before long I learned it was us and not my friends who were in danger. I found it hard to get clear information. And I decided to evacuate when a friend notified me by text that I needed to get out. I loaded up the car as best I could, but my priority was the safety of my children. We left Talent in a crawl of traffic and finally met up with my wife and we stayed in the hotel in Grants Pass and learned that we had lost our home the next morning. Housing is hard to find. Life is different and the trauma of losing our home often leaves us tired, anxious, and depressed. And sadly, our experience is shared by so many. And this is what we would like our legislators to focus on. Enact policies that will ensure that fire risks are mitigated and do it now, before it happens again, it will happen again. Ensure that housing and real estate is readily available to people at all income levels particularly our most vulnerable. Do not allow predatory activity to occur. Individuals capitalizing on the effects of the fire. We all know that there are plenty of people, for example, out of state that are more than happy to move here and take advantage of our real estate situations. And also hold insurance companies accountable advocate for us in finding a path to make this process easier.
Dawn Pinedo: My name is Dawn Pinedo and my home and my property burned in the South Obenchain Fire. Everything was a complete loss. Our home, all our outbuildings, our beautiful trees on our acreage, all gone. Everything from a lifetime is gone. Never thought that I’d be homeless. We’re fortunate that we have good homeowners insurance who was very responsive to us. So we’re very grateful for that. We were able to buy a motor home to live in and had to find someplace to park it because there’s too much debris of course, at the home site. So initially we went to Valley of the Road State Park. And not having any place to go at the time we asked the park, if we were able to stay there for longer than the 14 days that you’re allowed at the park. Which their response was no, you’re only allowed to stay the 14 days. You’d have to leave for a certain amount of time and then come back. Okay. So that went nowhere. So we ended up leaving. They told us that most people from the fire had moved on by now and we needed to go to the expo and see what kind of resources they had for fire victims.
John Q. Murray: Hannah Sohl is Executive Director of Rogue Climate in Phoenix.
Hannah Sohl: The fact that this whole hearing isn’t being interpreted in Spanish means that you won’t get to hear the stories of many in Southern Oregon who were most impacted . Since the fire, Rogue Climate, the Rogue Action Center, and many other partners have been organizing for recovery that creates more equitable, diverse, and climate resilient communities, rather than a recovery where community members are priced out of being able to return by developers, speculators, and large landlords, which we are seeing right now and very quickly. Many fire survivors are still sleeping in their cars or garages or tents or six people in a rented room or hotel room while also trying to do online schooling because of COVID because there is no affordable housing available. In the short term, we need also immediate investment in case management and mental health services, people are still struggling to access the available resources that there are.
But our most immediate need continues to be housing. We need the state support to invest in affordable replacement housing. The market didn’t solve our housing crisis before the fire, and it is not going to solve the affordable housing crisis that has been made so, so much worse by the fire. Affordable housing is going to require a combination of public policy and public funding and land acquisition. It was great to hear you mention cooperatively-owned manufactured home parks, and we also need to see subsidized apartments, and we need to make sure that some of these models enable the residents to acquire equity in the home or the project.
Joanne Mina: My name is Joanne Mina. I work with the Latino Community Association and have the opportunity to serve in the Wildfire Economic Recovery Council. Also as somebody that works at community based organizations, I work with Latinex and immigrant community helping with the Oregon workers relief fund. I see that members from the community that were impacted by COVID-19 are also calling because they were impacted by the fires. So these inequities are compiling on underserved community members. Serving in the Wildfire Economic Recovery Council, we were able to reach out to underserved communities just like you are doing now and we were able to hear the barriers from abusive landlord practices to barriers to have contractors be communities of color, they’re able to help in that recovery and rebuild as well as the lack of notification, all these things are hitting Latinos, pueblos originarios, and immigrant Oregonians heavily.
John Q. Murray: Helaine Alon helped start the Facebook group, Almeda Environmental Health and Safety.
Helaine Alon: Who is the environmental health czar of the Almeda Fire? Who is testing all the dust, who is testing the water, who is really staying on top of these concerns and to have the most up-to-date information, the most up-to-date technology? The toxic smoke from wildfires in the urban interface are very unique. We’re not talking about just forest. We’re talking about homes, mobile homes, mechanics, pesticides, paint. The science is not very clear as to what the long-term health implications are. So I’m concerned about the health and safety of people who are living in the areas that were not destroyed, but who are adjacent or even a mile and a half away from the debris. There hasn’t been enough testing for asbestos. People are complaining of bloody noses, have more asthma attacks, migraines, flow of white dust in their homes. I don’t want us to be guinea pigs to be a cancer cluster in 10 to 15 years. So yeah, we started a Facebook group called the Almeda Environmental Health and Safety group, and people have been sharing experiences and concerns there. A lot of dust being spewed that isn’t being watered down appropriately. There are trucks that are removing debris and there’s a lot of dust flying everywhere. And who is monitoring that? Who, what are the penalties for not removing things appropriately? There isn’t enough asbestos testing. Maybe some of the hazardous debris was removed, but there’s a lot of fine particulate matter that people are breathing in and there needs to be some sort of measurement and analysis, and long-term tracking not only of the dust of the soil. I feel we have the opportunity to really be leaders around the environmental health piece, to really get data.
Brent Barry: My name is Brent Barry. I am the superintendent of Phoenix / Talent schools. More than 480 families who care for 700 students in our district, lost their homes. Those families have scattered, to find support wherever they can. Locally that means, living with one, two, or even three other families as single residence or they may be living in an RV or trailer that was generously donated, or they may be still in hotels or in cars. For others, their only available support is out of the area, meaning completely uprooting their family, which is truly heartbreaking. There is no question that having a place to call home remains the biggest need for recovery. As you are aware, we had a housing crisis prior to the Almeda fire and the impact of losing 2500 housing units has compounded this. This makes finding affordable housing next to impossible for residents who once resided in our community.
John Q. Murray: Virginia Camberos is director of the Rogue Valley Chapter of Unite Oregon.
Virginia Camberos: I implore you to please give us the resources needed, for us to rebuild our community. And and our, our familias Which many of them harvest this land to provide food for our community our families so that they are so needed and we want them to stay in the Valley. We have heard about many community members leaving the Valley because there’s not enough housing moving either further North or maybe even out of state we’ve known these familias / families. I’ve seen them grow up.
John Q. Murray: Janet Rant recommended accelerating vaccinations for those in shared emergency housing.
Janet Rant: I want to talk about vaccines for our undocumented workers. This committee understands that there is a need to have the people that pick our food to be vaccinated. And the information out there is lacking. The organization is lacking. We are a disaster area. So as a result of that, we should be catapulted into the next level. Latinos I work with would wait in line for four hours for a vaccination. They don’t have the information. They don’t have the opportunities that the more privileged people have that can choose to say no to a vaccine.
John Q. Murray: Kathy Kali, the mobile home park manager, said half of the former residents cannot afford to return.
Kathy Kali: The vast majority of people who are not coming back to the park, which is about half of the residents, about 35 out of 70 residents can not come back because they cannot afford to. I’m very concerned for my people. I’m not officially the manager anymore, but I care so much about everybody. I want everyone to land safely. And I was just on the phone today with a resident who was crying because the insurance money she got will not enable her to buy a new home. And she’s devastated. She’s living with her sister. She doesn’t know what the heck she’s going to do. And we have 35 people like this and it’s heartbreaking. To see what’s going on for them. I would really like to see some kind of legal pressure put on mobile home park owners that they have to serve the low income people in their rebuilding process.
Teresa Cisneros: My name is Teresa Cisneros and I’m the Housing Justice Organizer for Rogue Action Center.
1,748 mobile homes or apartments were lost in the Almeda fire, which was disproportionately devastating to our Latino and Latin X communities already suffering from COVID at twice the rate of others in Jackson County. Much of the housing stock we lost was old, meaning that displaced families, no matter how hard-working, will have a hard time affording new replacement units. At least 40 percent of our schoolchildren lost their homes. Many families in Southern Oregon are now sleeping in cars or on couches or in tents or living in motels without cooking facilities. The vacancy rate here before the fires was around 1.5% and it is close to zero. These are the perfect conditions for more homelessness and for price gouging, house discrimination and intimidation of renters who are lucky enough to have a roof over their heads, which we’ve already seen. Those who already have wealth and power will try to use their clout to gain more subsidies and special favors for themselves while blocking or watering down the real solutions our communities need.
John Q. Murray: Homeless activist Maig Tinnin asked legislators to look at equity issues, as Medford considers arresting homeless persons.
Maig Tinnin: So many homeless folks I spoke with and had experienced discrimination and bias at service sites that either officially or unofficially prioritized newly homeless victims over those who were homeless before the fires. For this reason, and many others a spontaneous fire relief camp was established in Hawthorne Park in Medford. The camp included recently displaced housed people as well as unhoused people, those both directly and indirectly impacted by the wildfires. We were helping everybody.
As rumors about homeless people being the cause of the fire started to grow, and hate began to circulate throughout the community, having a safe and established place for these folks to, to come was becoming even more important. I’m very worried about retaliation and harassment and violence against our friends.
And for this work, we were met with force and cruelty by the city of Medford. The park was raided by police. Over a hundred people were displaced and many of whom just went back onto the Greenway after that. And police made many arrests, including an NPR journalist and several fire relief volunteers. And right now the city of Medford is now considering a change to their camping ordinance, which would further criminalize the poor and unsheltered. They say that fines are not a big enough to turn it for homelessness. And so they need to arrest people for camping instead. They’re trying to increase these enforcement measures. I’d like to ask state representatives to take a serious look at the level of inequity that occurred during the response, and also looking at the current move towards increased criminalization that we’re seeing.
John Q. Murray: Like Regina and Kathy Kali, Nick also hailed from the first neighborhood to burn in the Almeda Fire.
Nick: Lot of people I know, they had to make a hard choice with the COVID shutdowns to choose between paying their homeowners owner’s insurance or keeping their lights on. People that have paid insurance on time for 18 years, missed their payments by two months. And now they get nothing, all that money they spent over decades. And there’s no help for them. The other aspect is the what, how Helaine had brought up with the long-term effects with people’s health? I, myself, camped in my burnt-down neighborhood for 45 days at the graces of the landowner allow me to do because he knows me. I had nowhere else to go. Many people had no play place to be indoors to get out of that hazard or smoke. That was the worst smoke in the world for several days. And now there’s certain criteria as with involving the cleanup. I know of a couple of particular places where only if asbestos has shown up on the surface soil is that required to be scraped and clean, nothing else regarding all the lead mercury three on antifreeze led all these other carcinogens. It chemicals. I spoke with an environmental engineer. He said that if the soil is not scraped and take taken away in a proper manner, that in 30 years, all these chemicals will leach into the water table. Then what. Future generations will be getting all kinds of sicknesses from drinking poisoned water. I know of places where the only asbestos test they’ve done is just by visual judgment, not by any actual scientific testing, other than just sheer guesstimation. It’s wrong. It’s wrong to sweep up the quickest way to build these up without thinking of the long-term health effects that these people are going to be having.
Tyler Myerly: My name is Tyler Myerly. I am with News 10 and the past five months, we’ve been listening to you guys and things that we can do to rebuild Southern Oregon, essentially. And if it’s not a shock that there was a housing crisis prior to the fire, and then you throw in losing over 2,600 homes in 24 hours. That issue just skyrocketed. And it’s still here. And after speaking to real estate attorneys and building associations and builders who are currently working on building homes, a lot of the issues that they’re seeing right now live in two things, mostly the lack of skilled labor and the cost of building materials. And we’ve heard from so many of our community members tonight that the people who lost their homes don’t have the type of disposable income to just buy new homes and buy existing homes for the fact that there are none existing right now, homes are maybe lasting four to eight days on the market in Jackson County before being sold.
Niria Alicia Garcia Torres: My name is Niria Alicia Garcia Torres, and I want to start by grieving the violent loss that many of the original peoples of Southern Oregon experienced in the late 1800s by federally-funded projects that supported miners to hunt indigenous people. And I want to grieve that this territory has seen a tremendous loss and so I extend my heart and my love to any descendants of the original peoples of Southern Oregon, whose villages were burnt down by miners and were forcibly removed from the Table Rock Reservation at gunpoint to reservations in the North.
And I want to celebrate celebrate the culture resilience of my community. I’m very proud that the day everything happened, so many of us were calling each other. So many. I heard accounts from so many of my community members. No one told them to go knock on their doors, on the people on the doors of their neighbors. People took it upon themselves because it was the right thing to do. And they did not wait to be told what to do. So I want to congratulate anyone on this call from our Southern Oregon community that felt their heart calling them to respond to this massive crisis and took care of people’s pets, pulled elders out of homes. Because with climate change, that is a type of response we are going to need, because it was very obvious that there is not enough structure to support communities, to effectively evacuate and receive the information that they need in their languages.
I want also grieve that, with climate change, we know that it is the black, the indigenous, the people of color, the poor, the disabled, the queer, the undocumented that are on the front lines of experiencing these disasters.
I want to encourage the state to do the right thing and protect people’s human right to housing by instilling policies that put people first, and I know that it’s possible. And then lastly, I just want to end by saying that there was such a barrier to some of our relatives that we invited from our community to speak, who left really discouraged tonight. And I’d like to invite representatives to come to our meetings on our time to listen to some of the voices that could not make it here tonight for technological reasons, for working reasons, for whatever reasons. I would like this to be a two-way relationship where our communities, we come to your stuff. We, we put stuff aside, I’ve been waiting to speak for five hours almost. And it would be nice to have that reciprocity where you could also come and listen to our community members. My father lost his home. So many of my people lost their home. It would be really lovely to have you all attend our meetings so that that voice and those experiences and those needs can be heard. We have a lot of ideas about how to solve our problems, how to rebuild our communities, how to get ourselves out of poverty and with a little bit of help access to funding, access to decision-making spaces that could go a long way.
John Q. Murray: The House and Senate wildfire committees will come together for two more listening sessions. Monday, February 22 at 5:30 they will hear from the rest of Oregon, including those affected by the Holiday Farm and Archie Creek fires. Elected officials from the fire areas are invited on Wednesday, February 24. For more, see OregonLegislature.gov.