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Voices Of Southern Oregon Wildfire Evacuees


We're going to begin today's program with the devastating wildfires sweeping across the western U.S. At least 17 people are dead and dozens more are missing amid massive fires in California, Oregon and Washington state. An orange haze of smog and ash is visible even in cities not directly impacted by the fires. Hundreds of thousands of acres have burned, displacing thousands of people and resulting in poor air quality.

We're going to focus our attention on Oregon, which is bracing for a mass fatality incident - that according to the state's director of emergency management. Among the most destructive wildfires burning across Oregon is in the Rogue Valley near the California border. The 3,200-acre Alameda Fire tore through the towns of Talent and Phoenix this week. One person has been confirmed dead, and about 50 people are still missing. Hundreds of homes and businesses were burned or destroyed.

Jefferson Public Radio's Erik Neumann visited an evacuation center to talk to residents who escaped the fire.

ERIK NEUMANN, BYLINE: At the Jackson County Expo emergency evacuation center, tall, black curtains have been hung to form cubicles inside a makeshift senior center. Elderly residents sit in wheelchairs or lie resting on cots. About half the people are wearing masks. Les Connell is the owner of Northridge Center, a senior assisted living facility near Phoenix.

LES CONNELL: We loaded all the residents, about 50 of them, up on these buses. We all spent the night here, and we're trying to find placement because the building did burn. It did burn completely, so we can't take them back.

NEUMANN: He says everyone got out safely without injuries. Just months ago, many facilities like this were under lockdown because of the coronavirus pandemic. Now they're improvising.

CONNELL: We were able to get our computers and the medical records and all the medicines for the residents. And that's critical because some of them have life-sustaining medicines.

NEUMANN: Outside, people who've lost their homes comb through piles of donated clothes and bedding. A few food trucks are giving out free hamburgers and snow cones. Signs on sandwich boards recommend that people wear masks. All the volunteers and about half the evacuees have them on.

Bryan Flores and Adriana Hays go to high school in Phoenix, a town of about 4,600 people where they live. They both lost their homes in the fire.

ADRIANA HAYS: It was a rough night. My mom was still at work. She couldn't leave yet. My family got out barely on time. The sheriffs had to be there to tell them that they need to get out.

NEUMANN: When Flores heard about the fire racing through Phoenix, he, his parents and three siblings evacuated before their house burned down.

BRYAN FLORES: We looked out all the way to Grants Pass because it feels all right there. And there was also a fire there that was starting to come to us, so we had to go back to Medford. And we passed by Phoenix to see what remained. There was nothing. And then we came here to the expo to take refuge.

NEUMANN: Both were supposed to start the school year on Wednesday. Now they're evacuees.

HAYS: I'm thinking I'm, like, yeah, this feels like a normal day. And then in the back of my mind, I'm still thinking, like, we don't have a house to go back to. We lost our pets in the fire. Like, we don't have anything.

NEUMANN: Debi Rappaport was at the shelter, too. She's live in the city of Talent for a dozen years.

DEBI RAPPAPORT: And this is the scariest thing that's ever happened ever.

NEUMANN: A friend's son snuck through the police road closure, so she heard that her house did not burn down. Now she says she's experiencing a mix of emotions.

RAPPAPORT: I'm feeling really lucky, blessed and sad for them and my town. It's - Talent's, like, Andy of Mayberry kind of place, you know?

NEUMANN: At the evacuation shelter, State Representative Pam Marsh is trying to help connect evacuees with things they need. She says at this point in the disaster, they're trying to organize state and federal help, like assistance from the National Guard.

PAM MARSH: You know, I think we're going to need something on the ground here for a while. And then I'm not sure what happens next. I don't know where we house hundreds of people who have lost their homes.

NEUMANN: The Rogue Valley already had an affordable housing crisis. Many of the neighborhoods that burned were manufactured homes or trailers. The fire is going to make the housing problem worse. With the current economic crisis and now this, Representative Marsh says it's going to be a long-term effort to rebuild.

For NPR News, I'm Erik Neumann in Ashland, Ore. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Erik Neumann is a radio producer and writer. A native of the Pacific Northwest, his work has appeared on public radio stations and in magazines along the West Coast. He received his Bachelor's Degree in geography from the University of Washington and a Master's in Journalism from UC Berkeley. Besides working at KUER, he enjoys being outside in just about every way possible.