The Things That Do Not Burn

Living in Ashland, you wouldn’t know there was much of a Latino community here. Salvador, who mows our lawn, laughs and tells me, “We’re invisible to you, but we’re here!” 

A tourist town, thanks to the nine-month long Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Ashland boasts over 50 restaurants and 100 lodging options. Predictably, the kitchen workers and cleaners who make up the backbone of this “hospitality industry” are Spanish speaking — out of sight and out of mind. 

While the town’s homeless — almost always single, rumpled men — look for a hand out with cardboard signs, a Latino mother with two young children and a baby sells boxed fruit at a main intersection nearby, sometimes eight hours straight. I tip the father who plays the accordion in the Safeway parking lot, with his wife and two daughters at his side, all dressed in serapes. 

Armageddon

Wildfires, like hurricanes, gather names, some etched in memory for what they leave behind. Here in the Rogue Valley, last September’s Almeda Fire left unprecedented destruction in an already unprecedented Oregon wildfire season — although experts call the Almeda Fire an “urban conflagration,” one that burned through dry grasslands, riparian areas with dense fuel loads, and urban areas with packed residences.

In the case of the Almeda Fire, an avenging arsonist aided by gale force winds provided the spark, igniting an inferno that within hours charted a relentless course through Talent and Phoenix, two modest communities along Oregon 99 between Ashland and Medford. I remember standing that morning in the field next to our house in Ashland and looking north for smoke in a cloudless blue sky. The same winds that furiously fanned the flames in Talent and Phoenix eight miles away kept the fire, let alone the smoke, out of sight here.

By the next morning, the Almeda Fire had upended life in Southern Oregon. It had displaced thousands in a region where affordable housing was already scarce. Nearly 3,000 homes — including 1,750 in 18 mobile home parks where residents lived paycheck-to-paycheck — were incinerated in a single day. In the school district that serves Phoenix and Talent, nearly three-quarters of the students lost their homes. 

When families returned several weeks later, after officials finally removed the blockades, they found there was nothing to sift through. 

“Our decisions [about] what to take will forever haunt us. The ‘Why didn’t we grab this or that?’ will be a subject of many bouts of tears, sadness, anger and depression. ‘We lost EVERYTHING!’ will play itself over and over forever.” (Jefferson Public Radio)

Early Recovery 

The trauma of the Almeda Fire struck deep. For weeks, many evacuees kept their cars packed, just in case, with anxiety rising on windy days. Ashland therapist Scott Bandoroff tells Jefferson Public Radio about the bone-deep exhaustion, sleep troubles, nightmares and despair that laced through the impromptu counseling sessions he provided at survivor’s burned-out homesites. 

Temporary shelters rose overnight. At the Jackson County Expo, fifteen miles away, there was room to set up tents, park recreational vehicles, and sleep in cars. The Salvation Army and local restaurants offered three meals a day. Evacuees found a first-aid station, water and snacks, 24-hour crisis mental health care, computer access, books and games, help for seniors, veterans and homeless youth, fire maps, aid with health insurance and reporting property damage, donated items from clothing to blankets — the list of “amenities” was long. 

Elsewhere, residents whose homes were spared by the flames opened their couches and floors to displaced families. Others lent travel trailers and tents, with campsites sprouting up on the banks of the nearby Bear Creek. Budget motels took in evacuees with vouchers from the Red Cross. For Latino families with undocumented members, federal and state resources weren’t an option; for them, according to the Almeda Fires Latinx Relief fund, help came “person to person.” 

As local officials searched the ashes for what caused the fire (and determined it had been arson), donations of clothing, food and other essentials poured into relief centers. Volunteers up and down the Valley pitched in, from biking in essentials to fire victims unable to leave their homes or staffing the Expo grounds to listening to the stories of survivors and sharing their anguish. 

When a local Mexican restaurant that was coordinating monetary donations between midnight and 6 am (in toxic smoke) asked for volunteers to help with security, the slots were filled in 20 minutes. A group of upscale restauranteurs began an ambitious effort to feed fire victims daily meals for months to come, one of many efforts to make sure hunger did not add to the toll. 

As one grateful evacuee pointed out, though, “None of this replaces what I lost.”

The Latino community

Just as COVID-19 revealed the severe inequalities embedded in our democracy, the Almeda Fire unmasked the vulnerabilities of the region’s poor, elderly and, most of all, its Latino community. As Beatriz Gomez, surveying the devastation in her mobile home park, told a local reporter: “They wiped out the poor. [And] they wiped out the Mexicans.” 

In the hard hit towns of Talent (pop. 6,420) and Phoenix (pop. 4,540), less than ten miles north of Ashland, roughly 15 percent of the population is Latino. They are part of a migration of largely Mexican migrants who settled in the Rogue Valley in the early 1990s to work in the nearby pear and peach orchards and food processing plants (Harry & David, with its food baskets, is the major employer), along with restaurants, cleaning and landscaping services, and wineries. They work hard; some who lost their homes returned to work the next day.  

They are young. The median age in Talent is 38.5 (compared to 44 in Ashland). Forty-percent of the children in the Talent-Phoenix school district are Latino. (After the fire, children were shuffled to pandemic-induced remote learning in neighboring school districts, though they lacked the computers and internet to connect.)

And a severe shortage of cheap housing across the Rogue Valley had forced much of the Latino community into tightly packed, multi-generational mobile home parks — where the emotional ties between neighbors, sealed by hardship and celebration, were close but the physical structures were deeply combustible.

When the flames died, the Almeda Fire had reduced nine mobile or manufactured home parks to ashes and seriously damaged five others, with the flames playing Russian roulette, destroying one unit and skipping another. 

When I asked Salvador, our landscaper, if the fire had spared him, he said, “My family is still standing, still home.” He walked away, then turned back. “Thank you for asking.”

Rebuilding

The business of re-building after a catastrophe, like the Almeda Fire, wears two faces.

One speaks of resilience, the chorus that rises up and places the word “strong” after the name of the community in pain: “Boston Strong,” “Memphis Strong.”

In Talent and Phoenix, resilience is ample, too, especially among the Latino migrants who know how to start from scratch and endure. While few carried insurance for the homes they lost (ten percent, by most estimates), most would tell you that their relatives, neighbors, friends and co-workers offered collective support they could count on.

They are philosophic, as well. “Sequir adelante,” Mario Roche, an assistant foreman at a vineyard, told a reporter for Oregon.live, when asked what kept him going. Move forward. “That’s all I can do,” he said.

Suekaty Barragan, pregnant with her second child, showed a message tattooed on her left forearm, one she says sustains her now:  “Dios da las peores batallas a sus mejores guerreros.”  Translation: God gives the worst battles to his best warriors.

“You have to keep dreaming,” says Francisco Javier Torres as he fights back tears. “You have to keep visualizing what you want the world to look like” (“An American Dream, Scorched in Oregon”)

The hard reality, though, is that the same, pervasive economic and social inequities that made the Latino community in Southern Oregon so vulnerable in the Almeda Fire makes “building back better,” let alone rebuilding to what was, as daunting as renewing our fractured democracy. 

It will take years. EPA crews must first remove hazardous waste from the residential areas and mobile home parks, where the toxins are especially acute. Carting off ash and non-toxic debris could take another six to 18 months, accompanied by planning and permitting. Only then can construction start in earnest. The Rogue Valley Rebuilds website warns: “Re-construction on such a large scale will take a long time, even with everyone working as fast as they can.”

(“Will my family still be here two or three years from now?” 17-year-old Bryan Flores asks, imagining a future in which his family must move from one temporary shelter to another.)  

And, of course, there are two reconstruction stories. One belongs to residents like Jim Thayer, who lost the house he had built seven years ago and is one of the first to rebuild in Talent.

 “As soon as we got our permits, within a couple of days they were pouring concrete, next week they’ll come in and put in the floor joist and then the plumbers will be in for rough plumbing and then start laying the floor. At the end of the day if I can go stand by the street and look behind me and see some progress, that’s encouragement and that gets me up the next day, and keeps me going.” (KTVL.com

The other belongs to residents like Beatriz Gomes and Francisco Torres, for whom the modest mobile home parks offered a lifeline between minimum wage, benefit-less jobs and median house costs topping $205,000.

Many worry that with entire mobile home parks leveled by fire, developers could move in and build upscale residences on that land. City officials in Talent are considering a new ordinance to ensure that high-priced housing does not replace the mobile home and trailer parks. Finding suitable land for affordable housing has its own challenges, however: new zoning and building codes restrict mobile home park density and newly designed floodplains rule out some land altogether. The cost of building materials is also up due to high demand from communities along the West Coast trying to rebuild after fires that stretched from Southern California to Washington state. 

“A lot of things burned down,” Erica Alexia, the 28-year-old daughter of Mexican immigrants, told a New York Times reporter. “But who gets to recover and who doesn’t? That’s the question.”

What lies beneath

The coronavirus has stripped bare the racial divide in the health of our nation. People of color are dying at disproportionate and devastating rates due to underlying health conditions. Indeed, the lack of access extends far beyond health care — to employment, education, opportunities, justice.

On an arguably smaller but no less real scale, the firestorm that ravaged Southern Oregon last September revealed its own underground: a migrant Latino community sequestered in low wage jobs (whether blowing leaves, cleaning bathrooms, or picking fruit) and in crowded, marginal housing. Ironically, as the pandemic threatened food supply chains last spring, the government awarded “essential worker” status to those who labored in growing fields and food packing plants, including those ten miles from where I live. COVID soon began to seep through the local Latino community, data suggest.  Since the Almeda Fire, the coronavirus rate has soared as fire refugees packed into old recreational vehicles, makeshift housing, and motel rooms.

When the flames stormed her mobile home park four months ago, Octavia Munoz quickly buried her plans for her upcoming Quinceanera (15th birthday celebration).  When her abuela (grandmother) died alone from COVID last month, Octavia prayed from afar.

Coda

On January 20th, at Biden’s inauguration, the brilliant youth poet laureate, Amanda Gorman, electrified the same Capitol steps domestic terrorists had claimed two weeks earlier.

“We will rebuild, reconcile, recover,” the 22-year-old Gorman insisted, her jeweled, braided Afro standing tall as four U.S. Presidents looked on. “So, while once we asked, how could we possibly prevail over catastrophe, now we assert, how could catastrophe possibly prevail over us?”

A month earlier, I had watched a young Latina poet raise the same themes at a (virtual) local storytelling event, aimed at the close-at-hand Latino community felled by the Almeda Fire. Seventeen-year-old Estefania Ortiz-Madera talked about “the things that do not burn.” She recalled how her parents came to the U.S. 22 years ago with nothing and made a life for themselves. “If they did that then,” she said, “we can do that now.”

Rebuild, reconcile, recover, I remind myself.  Dignity, opportunity, and justice for all, I preach. I struggle with how to match deeds to these words. 

//inserted by Sharon