When Oregon’s Wildfires Swept Through My County, Mutual Aid Brought Us Together

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The frantic wind in Ashland, Oregon, woke me up at 5 a.m. on September 8, 2020, the morning of the fire. For a heavy sleeper who’s known to set five or six alarms for early mornings, I was surprised that I had been startled by the sound of harried wind chimes outside my window. In retrospect, the unrelenting minor-key clanging of the hollow pipes seems like some kind of omen. But for the next five or six hours, I went about my regular morning routine: coffee, oatmeal, Twitter, work.

Then, around 10 or 11 a.m., the winds guided what became a fierce inferno named the Almeda Fire on a highly destructive path. Fire season always poses a serious threat to Southern Oregon’s Rogue Valley, but no one could have predicted the severity of the Almeda Fire, which primarily affected the towns of Talent and Phoenix—just north of Ashland. On the following day, FEMA stated that the fire had burned approximately 600 homes, a number that felt dizzying enough to those of us in a county of approximately 221,000 people. But weeks later, we learned that the fire had actually burned an estimated 2,357 homes, leaving over 3,000 residents displaced.

For too many people, the fire came without warning. The county’s emergency manager never deployed the available county-wide Emergency Alert System. Residents of the area like myself relied on the police scanner, and volunteers transcribed it live on a Facebook group originally meant for members to recommend hiking trails and sell their Tibetan singing bowls.

“Structure fire on Arnos Street.”

“Power lines falling on highway 99.”

“Gonna need evacuation assistance.”

In the following days, emergency responders tended to the still-burning fire while law enforcement launched investigations into its disputed cause. The people who had just lost their homes had dispersed, either to friends’ homes or hotels, their cars, or tents—all without most of their belongings. It took days to learn what burned down and what survived the fire.

Rather than sit around worrying, I went to buy supplies for families whose homes burned down, at that point imagining it had been just a handful. While on the supply run, I posted on Instagram: “If you want to send me some money, I’ll pick up some extra things with it!”

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