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50 homes in one Latter-day Saint ward destroyed by fire, and that’s only part of the story of loss and resiliency

‘We felt carried in the ways I think the Savior would carry us if he could in a physical form. He moved them to help,’ said Oregon fire survivor Misty Pantle

Misty Pantle and her children, Tanner, 15, Tatum, 16, and Reese, 14, left to right, make the first visit to the burned remnants of the home they and Pantle’s sister Tammy Johnson, not pictured, shared in Talent, Ore., on Saturday, Sept. 19, 2020. Their home was one of more than 2,300 residences destroyed when the Almeda Fire swept through the towns of Talent and Phoenix in southern Oregon.
Misty Pantle and her children, Tanner, 15, Tatum, 16, and Reese, 14, left to right, make the first visit to the burned remnants of the home they and Pantle’s sister Tammy Johnson, not pictured, shared in Talent, Ore., on Saturday, Sept. 19, 2020. Their home was one of more than 2,300 residences destroyed when the Almeda Fire swept through the towns of Talent and Phoenix in southern Oregon.
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

TALENT, Oregon — The wildfire played a devilish brand of hopscotch as it swept north alongside the highway.

Flaming embers rode dry gales, leaped miles ahead and dropped haphazardly from the sky on a single home or business while sparing the one next to it.

The Almeda Fire also terrorized and torched entire neighborhoods in four cities along I-5 in southern Oregon. Sheriff’s deputies burst into homes moments ahead of the blaze to save residents who had no warning. Firefighters temporarily held back infernos to rescue others.

Flames consumed at least 2,357 homes and residences, making it one of the 10 most-devastating American fires in 50 years, said John Vial, director of the Jackson County emergency operations center.

The fire damaged or destroyed 50 homes in a single congregation of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, leaving leaders of the Bear Creek Ward to scramble to the aid of hundreds of members while many of them were themselves without power, water or even their own houses due to evacuation orders.

On Saturday, 11 days after the fire, one member of the ward, Misty Pantle, returned to her neighborhood for the first time with her three teenagers and her oldest sister, Tammy Johnson, who lives with them. The sisters bought the house new nearly five years ago because the two-story homes were larger but stacked close together along narrow streets, so the yards were small and simple to maintain.

“I was gobsmacked to see how desolate and flat and barren it looked,” she said. “It was thriving and vibrant before. Today, it didn’t look like that.”

Pantle said her ward and surrounding congregations up and down the Bear Creek Greenway corridor in Oregon’s beautiful Rogue Valley rallied to her support and that of other displaced families. They rally to help each other, church member and non-member alike.

A neighborhood in Talent, Ore., that was destroyed by the Almeda Fire is pictured on Saturday, Sept. 19, 2020. Sisters Tammy Johnson and Misty Pantle and Pantle’s three teenage children shared one of the homes that was burned. 
A neighborhood in Talent, Ore., that was destroyed by the Almeda Fire is pictured on Saturday, Sept. 19, 2020. Sisters Tammy Johnson and Misty Pantle and Pantle’s three teenage children shared one of the homes that was burned.
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

The morning after the fire, Pantle learned her home was gone, with flames still visible. Within three hours, she had temporary shelter with another ward member.

“You see the difference,” she said of the way the church’s members sprang into action. “We had people begging us to stay with them, while I know others who’ve been looking for refuge. People have been concerned whether we’d have things to wear to church so we would be able to return and worship.

“We felt carried in the ways I think the Savior would carry us if he could in a physical form. He moved them to help.” It was help that would be extended beyond church members to those in need.

Resiliency

So far, officials believe the Almeda Fire killed three people. The day after the fire, some members of the Bear Creek Ward were missing. Reports streamed in that dozens of families were homeless.

Latter-day Saint congregations are built to help every family in multiple ways, and the Bear Creek Ward quickly mobilized along established lines. Every family is assigned a set of ministering brothers and a set of ministering sisters, regular folks with callings to watch over others like themselves. Watching over each other has been part of the church’s teachings and programs for more than 100 years. This specific ministering program has been in place since April 2018.

“We’re imperfect people, but ministering is a perfect plan,” said Heidi Blue, the Medford Stake Relief Society president. The Relief Society, one of the world’s largest women’s organizations, helps women grow spiritually and provides volunteer philanthropic help in communities around the world. If there is a need, they fill it.

The women leading the Bear Creek Ward Relief Society presidency launched a spreadsheet and began to fill it with names of families contacted by the ministering sisters. The leaders color-coded the Google Doc. Yellow meant a damaged home. Green was for the displaced who had a home they could return to eventually. Pink highlighted immediate needs and the ministering people assigned to meet them. Purple was for those who needed groceries.

Soon, the men leading the ward’s Elders’ Quorum presidency began to feed information into the spreadsheet, too. It informed the leaders about what was needed, and they responded. Soon volunteers were taking in the laundry of those displaced. Others were sharing generators with those who needed it. Still others were finding apartments or mobile homes where those who lost a home could stay. Some began to offer translation services to help with navigating all the red tape ahead. Meanwhile, many church members have helped others outside the church find shelter.

The size of the problem also quickly became apparent.

So did the fact that those trying to help often were displaced, heavily burdened or needed other help themselves. Medford Stake President John Clason, who oversees multiple Latter-day Saints congregations in the area with additional losses totaling at least 65 houses, put out a call for help and increased the ministering capability.

Soon, 50 volunteers from other congregations were newly minted stake ministers — dubbed “shepherds” by the stake president to help distinguish the volunteers — to specific individuals and families.

Pantle, for example, is receiving support from her regular ministering sister as well as living with her family in the home of a woman from the Ashland Ward who offered to help.

Pantle stood and stared at the ashes of her home for a long time on Saturday evening. She remembered buying it.

“It felt like a victory for Tammy and I,” she said. “I had the demise of a marriage and she never married, and we felt combining our lives would be beneficial. To buy a home together was exciting and brand new.”

She was home with her children — Tatum, 16, Tanner, 15, and Reese, 14 — on the day of the fire because they were starting virtual school. The office she manages is near where the Almeda Fire began, and when she was on the phone with the office, she tilted her phone up away from her mouth and told the kids to start packing bags. They each grabbed the bin with their childhood stuff. They chose to evacuate before an order came; one never did for their neighborhood.

“I felt overwhelmed and grateful we came away safely,” Pantle said. “I’m a bit sad but a little bit reflective. I think that, you know, fire itself, you have to get it to certain heat in order for it to refine and shape into something new. I guess I’m hopeful that we’ll be able to shape into something new.”

“I think we rebuild. We start anew,” she said. “Tammy and I have been through some interesting trials in our lives and we have a 100% survival rate, and so we plan to survive. We plan to move forward. We plan to take what we have, and the lessons we’ve learned and invest them, and we’ll rebuild, but what that looks like, today I don’t know.”

On Sunday, that looked like exercising their faith.

Pantle said the family participated in the Ashland Ward sacrament meeting via YouTube early Sunday morning, then took the emblems of the sacrament at the home of her extra ministering sister’s house. Later in the morning, the family watched the Bear Creek Ward sacrament meeting via Zoom.

Anne Noble stands beside the remains of the home she shared with her husband, Bob, in Talent, Ore., while giving journalists a tour on Saturday, Sept. 19, 2020. Their home was one of more than 2,300 residences destroyed when the Almeda Fire swept through the towns of Talent and Phoenix in southern Oregon.
Anne Noble stands beside the remains of the home she shared with her husband, Bob, in Talent, Ore., while giving journalists a tour on Saturday, Sept. 19, 2020. Their home was one of more than 2,300 residences destroyed when the Almeda Fire swept through the towns of Talent and Phoenix in southern Oregon.
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Anniversary day

The fire took the mobile home where Bob and Anne Noble had lived for 21 years. They celebrated their 54th wedding anniversary by attending the Bear Creek meeting in person on Sunday morning.

“The thing we’re most grateful for is we have each other,” said Bob Noble, who turned 77 last week.

He has maintained a sense of humor: “The insurance adjuster asked me about my 2013 Hyundai Sonata and I said, ‘Well, it’s toast.’”

The heat of the fires melted the sides of some cars, gutted others and produced little rivers of melted metal. The cars seem safe to joke about.

Misty Pantle, her sister and children called their 1997 blue Toyota Camry “the Blueberry.” After seeing it gutted — they retrieved a license plate, bent and completely cleared off by the fire — “Blueberry” has a new nickname: “Blackberry.”

On Sunday morning, Noble was called on spontaneously to give the opening prayer at sacrament meeting. He first expressed gratitude for safety, joy and membership in Christ’s kingdom, then prayed that ward members receive strength and support and be sustained to do what God would have them do.

The congregation wore face coverings, sat apart from each other to practice physical distancing — blue masking tape on the carpet marked which pews were closed — and did not sing. A pianist played soulful renditions of “Where Can I Turn for Peace?” “There Is a Green Hill Far Away” and “I Believe in Christ.”

Pantle and her family and a couple dozen others watched on Zoom via a smartphone that sat on an improvised, folded cardboard stand secured to the podium with rubber bands.

One of the speakers said the ordinance of the sacrament, which was observed directly after the meeting, allowed the ward’s members to turn to Jesus Christ the way the people in the ancient Americas did when Christ visited them after his death, according to the Book of Mormon.

The people experienced vapors of darkness at Christ’s death, vapors that dissipated when he arrived, said Elder David Wright, an Area Seventy.

“We’ve had our vapors of darkness in this valley,” he said. “We’ve had our own destruction in this valley. And then after the destruction, came the Savior,” who displayed the emblems of his suffering.

“Remember that you are personally remembered in his suffering,” he added.

Elder Wright said he admired the way ward members are caring for each other.

“I have been humbled by what I’ve seen in the manifestations of faith in everyone I’ve talked to in your ward,” he said.

A pool of once-melted metal is seen near a van on Saturday, Sept. 19, 2020, after being burned by the Almeda Fire in Talent, Ore.
A pool of once-melted metal is seen near a van on Saturday, Sept. 19, 2020, after being burned by the Almeda Fire in Talent, Ore.
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Blooming flowers

A high-pressure zone that stretched from the American Southwest to Alaska created hot, dry winds moving an unusual direction, toward the Pacific Ocean. In Oregon, the gusts fed trees and brush that had been drying out all summer, according to media reports. Smoke from Oregon’s fires spread across the United States, over the Atlantic Ocean and into parts of Europe.

The Almeda Fire began under suspicious circumstances, which are being investigated as a crime, in a field where a man’s remains have been found. It was fed by subsequent arson, police said. A 41-year-old man was arrested Friday for allegedly setting fires in one of the cities, Phoenix.

The fires raced along the 18-mile Bear Creek Greenway and leapt into Mountain View Estates, the mobile home park community of people 55 and older where the Nobles lived.

“I thought for sure the fire would go right down the greenway and miss us, because this community is just a sanctuary,” said Sheryl Padilla, another Bear Creek Ward member. She managed to rescue her birds from her mobile home and get out herself only because a firefighter directed others to hold off the blaze just long enough. She drove out onto Highway 99, where traffic jammed.

“There was fire everywhere,” she said. “Then I heard what sounded like bombs. I think water heaters and propane tanks and trees were exploding. It was really scary. I had to just sit there on 99 and watch the park burn.”

Padilla said she had anxiety attacks for the first few days after the fire.

“I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t sleep,” she said. “I would see the ceiling falling in on me in flames.”

Returning to see her possessions in ashes helped.

“After I saw all this, it made me relax,” she said. “I was so close to not getting out, but when I saw this I realized the ceiling’s already fallen in, it’s not going to get me.”

She laughs at herself for being frustrated at the sight of her burned out air conditioner, which she bought two weeks ago. Hope is sparked by green buds near the road.

“My flowers are growing,” she said. “There’s life here.”

The work ahead

Most of the Bear Creek Ward’s members are returning home, but leaders and ministering members know the work is only beginning.

President Clason, the leader of the Medford congregations, phoned the Chico Stake president in Paradise, California, for advice. Nearly two years after fires there killed 85 and destroyed 18,800 structures, the counsel was to brace for long-term recovery.

“They still have members who are not permanently housed,” President Clason said.

Elder Wright, the Area Seventy, said he’s been pleased that other church resources — the fast offering program where members donate money for food saved by fasting, and its Bishops’ Storehouse of food — have been able to handle immediate needs.

“People’s short-term needs are being met,” he said. “The elephant in the room is the long-term housing shortage. This is analogous to Paradise.”

From Washington to California, the church has seen 125 members’ homes damaged or destroyed by wildfires, according to a church spokesman. Church headquarters has sent three truckloads of food to areas in need and has scheduled eight more. That aid, as well as help with clothing and shelter, is being provided to everyone in need in affected communities through local food pantries and other resources.

Padilla, the woman who saved her birds, surveyed her lost home while two hawks soared above the seared greenway over the weekend. She doesn’t know what will happen with her insurance. She recently learned that she, and some others in the mobile home park, had depreciating insurance and are not fully covered.

“Everything’s going to be fine,” she said, expressing confidence in her faith, her congregation and the community. “All we have to do is love each other and take care of people. People are working together. What’s wrong with that?”

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