These families lost their homes in the Almeda Fire. Then the community took action
“We see people who believe they might be divided working side by side, and that’s a beautiful picture of what’s coming out of this situation.” — Ryan Rhoden, pastor of the Living Waters Church in Medford, Oregon
PHOENIX, Oregon — The 7-year-old boy with autism experienced the Almeda Fire differently than anyone else, including his mother, father and older brother, though they all lost the family’s 20-year home and everything in it.
“Woody died,” Christopher Chavez said again and again, referring to his “Toy Story” action figure. “Woody burned!”
The depth of Christopher’s bewilderment and loss haunted his mother, Laura Avalos, heaping additional strain atop the stress of sudden houselessness. She is not alone. Several families in her autism support group lost their homes in the wind-fueled inferno that damaged or destroyed 2,357 homes in Phoenix, Oregon, and three other cities on Sept. 8.
“How do you explain to a child with special needs you don’t have a house any more?” said Laura Walton, a friend with a child who lived with disabilities. “How do you express to them their favorite toy burned? How do you explain to a daughter who lost a pillow she loved, that she relied on more than anything in the world for comfort, that it is gone forever?
Christopher relied on Woody to feel safe, and then the cowboy action figure was fuel for the fire, and now he is an indistinguishable pile of papery gray wisps in a sea of ashes sitting in the foundation of what was a family’s home.
Fortunately, good is rising from ashes in Phoenix.
Santiago Cruz, 17, who has an autistic younger brother of his own and knows Christopher’s family, recently went shopping with some of the money he earned this summer painting houses.
Christopher beamed when he saw what Santiago brought him.
“Woody’s alive!” he yelled, clutching a package with a new action figure. “Woody’s not burned!”
Santiago’s tender deed of human kindness represents thousands of other, similar acts. Lovingly committed by people from all backgrounds, these acts began immediately after the fire started. They have not stopped. Locals say that spirit of lifting others calls into question the narrative of American division.
“We’re in a season of feeling divided, but this is closer to who we are,” said Ryan Rhoden, pastor of the Living Waters Church in Medford, where the fire stopped. “We see people who believe they might be divided working side by side, and that’s a beautiful picture of what’s coming out of this situation.”
‘We love on them’
Trauma persists three weeks after the fire charged north for 10 miles through neighborhoods in the Rogue Valley towns of Ashland, Talent, Phoenix and Medford.
“We still have so many people coming in who are still in shock,” Rhoden said. “They say, ‘I’m in trauma. I’m in grief. I’m in shock.’ We try to take a load off and love on them.”
The phrase “love on them” is an active calling in the lives of Rhoden and his wife, Kate, who co-lead Living Waters. The congregation’s website declares, “We are the church in action.” The congregation has made disaster service trips to Mississippi, Louisiana and Haiti.
“When it’s in your backyard, our greatest gift is our availability,” Rhoden said. “We have this space, and we’ve opened it.”
Shelves and clothing racks went up in a room next to the warehouse. Those who have lost everything can find clothes, bedding, baby diapers, suitcases, backpacks, furniture, toiletries, books and more.
While Rhoden talked with a reporter Wednesday, Kate directed traffic throughout the 18,000 square-foot warehouse the couple intends to turn into an assembly hall. A line of volunteers unloaded a trailer of donated items.
“This one’s heavy,” a man on the trailer cautioned a woman as he passed her a box. She repeated the warning to the next person, and so it went down the line. The pickup pulling the trailer blocked both lanes of traffic on Bartlett Street. No driver complained.
‘Angels sent from God’
Woody comforts Christopher today not in a tent but in an apartment hastily arranged by his father’s employer and prepared by an impromptu network spearheaded by Santiago’s mother, Rosa Ochoa. The group helped the family negotiate a lower rent.
Ochoa holds no official title, but she has become a bridge across which the resources of multiple organizations pass to Spanish-speaking families in the valley. A native of Mexico City who migrated legally, she first set out to advocate for Spanish-speaking families with autistic children. She ties Latino families with autistic children together with the Autism Association and Bridging Communities, which previously had little Spanish-speaking outreach.
The fire gave her connections added meaning.
“All the families in my support group lost everything,” she said. Her next-door neighbor, Laura Walton, and others are working with seven families who lost their homes.
All of them have found short-term shelter. Two are temporarily in homes that are for sale, one is in a hotel, another in an RV on the Jackson County Fairgrounds, and two are staying with family. Walton launched a GoFundMe page for one of them, raising more than $5,000. Another has raised $6,000.
They’ll need more.
“Our community’s low-income housing has nearly disappeared with this fire,” said Heather Carleton, who ties Ochoa’s network to a new organization, Longer-Term, Secure Short-Term Housing (LTSST). Many of the trailers in trailer parks were uninsured because they were built in the 1960s and were uninsurable. “Some lived in their places for 20 years and had worked twice as hard for half the money and paid it all off. Now they have to start all over again.
The seventh family is Christopher’s.
“It’s been a horrible experience,” his mother, Laura Avalos, said through a translator, her older son, Diego. “We lived in our home for 20 years. We lost all of our photos, our possessions, the home where we built our memories.”
Their new apartment was a wreck. Walton has spent days galvanizing volunteers to work alongside Christopher’s family to clean it out and paint it. Their little team is working with a plumber to repair a tub.
“After the fire, I prayed and fasted to find a way to help,” she said. “I couldn’t even sleep. Action has helped with that. Helping Laura’s family has helped.”
While Walton worked alongside Avalos in her new friend’s new home, the two Lauras discovered a tender mercy between them. Like Avalos with Christopher, Walton had a son named Christoph who was born with disabilities; Sunday was the anniversary of his death at age 12.
Avalos is overwhelmed by this loose network of women helping her.
“Even though some of the people helping us weren’t as affected by the fire, they can still feel our pain,” she said. “I’m happy they are in my life. I never would have thought there were so many people filled with such goodness. They’ve been angels sent from God to help us.”
Ochoa’s network taps into the Rogue Valley’s large migrant farmer population. Many of these families live and work in the Oregon legally on H-2B and H-2A visas. There are so many unfilled agricultural jobs and other employment that some come to live and work here undocumented.
The Rogue Valley relies on the grapes, pears, hemp and marijuana harvested by the migrant workers who lived in Phoenix and Talent.
“They are the base of the local economy,” said Dagoberto Morales, director of Unete, the Center for Farm Worker and Immigrant Advocacy. “These migrant workers don’t come to steal anybody’s job, they just want to fill positions no citizens want to fill. Thanks to them, the Rogue Valley has a healthy forest industry, a healthy agricultural industry and enough workers for our hotels and restaurants.”
Now several hundred of those families have lost their homes.
“If they have to relocate because they can’t find new housing, our economy could tank and we could lose our opportunity to grow together,” said Carleton, the woman trying secure longer, short-term housing for them.
Cely Constanza, 28, was a teenager when she arrived alone and undocumented in the United States from Guatemala. Now a legal resident, she is motivated to help what she calls “this community in the shadows.” This week, she led a group of teenagers in making hygiene kits for migrant families. She is the Young Women president in the Medford 7th Spanish Branch, a congregation of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“When you’re in the shadows, you want to hide and not talk to anyone,” she said. “I know what it’s like to start totally alone, with nothing, without being able to speak any English.”
The funds for the kits came from Constanza’s clients and from the Spanish branch. A friend also accepted cash donations from family members in other states who heard about the fire. The kits went to the Northwest Seasonal Workers Association.
Rhoden, the Living Waters pastor, said Phoenix and Talent are vital to the Rogue Valley, which he called the hub of a five-hour span on I-5 stretching from Redding, California, to Eugene, Oregon.
“We have to own that we haven’t always seen what the living conditions are for these people who mean so much to the community,” he said. “People have had blinders on to what migrant workers do here.”
A 60-month recovery
Rhoden has a vision for a better, post-fire future. Some of it is fueled by interfaith cooperation.
“Since the fire, I’ve been able to contact people from other churches or faith backgrounds or organizations, and we have instant trust,” he said. “I call and ask for something, it shows up. I asked someone for a pallet jack. They called me back and said, ‘We will let you borrow one now, but we just ordered one for you to keep and it’ll be here in two days.’ It’s been invigorating.”
His congregation and others who have stepped into this breach where items are donated and dispersed manage a difficult balance. Many families who lost everything are living in tents on the fairgrounds. Cold fall nights are weeks away, but these families don’t yet have room to store anything, much less a donated winter coat.
So Living Waters is accepting and stocking donations not yet needed. There is no time to waste.
“We know the generosity is amazing now and people are incredible,” Rhoden said, “but human nature is that people will move on to the next thing at some point. We’re trying to capitalize on this generosity now so we can collect, clean and store what people will need in six months.”
So when Mark Pedersen, who chairs Rogue Valley Community Organizations Active in Disasters, delivers a trailer of donations collected at the fairgrounds, the Rhodens call in volunteers to unload. The Rhodens also have asked Pedersen, a Latter-day Saint, to schedule more help from his church’s missionaries, pleased with their efforts earlier in the week.
Ryan Rhoden is planning ahead to fill other gaps.
Living Waters is trying to outfit 10 trailers with generators, chainsaws, tool sets and other items to help clean home lots after the federal government pays for heavy equipment to scoop the ash and debris out of the foundations. Everything outside a home’s footprint is the homeowner’s responsibility, including fallen trees.
“Think of this as a 60-month recovery effort,” Rhoden said, aware that some fire victims in Santa Rosa and Paradise, California, are still without homes two and three years later.
“We have to think creatively, beyond the spots that burned down,” he added. “The generosity and saying yes to requests for help feels good at first. Then it starts to cost, and it becomes clear there’s a journey to it. In a few months or a year, the Red Cross and FEMA will be gone. It’ll be an opportunity for churches and community groups to stand up and say, ‘They got us off the mat. Now how do we come back as a community?’
“I think we can.”