As the weather report had promised, the morning was clear and blustery, the aspens outside clicking their leaves like maracas. I slurped the dregs of milk from my bowl of cereal, stepped outside to head to my studio, winked into the brightness and saw the plume. An immense bulbous cloud of pearly grey smoke billowing high into the blue. It loomed so large that for an instant a jab of panic seized my chest. Fire. Just as we had feared. All the day and night before, winds had whipped up from the south at forty miles an hour, tearing through the dry valley, which was already bristling in this uncharacteristic heat. A red flag warning kept us on edge all summer, and now the worst had come to pass. I called Jeanne to come see what I was seeing, then got in the car to drive around the bend to find the fire’s origin.
We live on a small farmhouse about nine miles from Ashland—and half that distance to Talent—while the little burg of Phoenix lies even closer to us. About a half mile around the creek that borders our house, there’s a gravel berm on a curve wide enough to park in, and the promontory affords a more or less open view of the valley all the way to Grizzly Peak. I stopped there and started taking pictures of the cloud, ominously rising from farther down the valley, its roiling clumps of smoke darkening more of the eastern sky. Soon, other folks pulled up off the road, too, and we stood there gawking under our masks, taking pictures of this giant thorax of smoke, and when we saw it turning black, we knew it meant structures were going up. I got an alert on my phone from the Jackson County Sheriff Scanner Feed: the fire had originated in a grass field by the water treatment plant in North Ashland at 11:08 and the fierce winds were blowtorching it north along Interstate 5. Several fire crews were already on site but finding it difficult to contain. From where we stood, we couldn’t see the fire for the dense trees between, but we knew it was on the move.
I drove back home to find the winds were ripping the pine needles off the trees and scattering them on the ground like long hairpins. The goats seemed not to mind the gusts that blew the dirt up around them, but the molting chickens were annoyed. Despite all that, I assured myself we were safe. After all, the skies directly over us were clear blue and unperturbed. My wife, though, was nervously watching the news with our dogs at her side. We texted my daughter Gracie who works in nearby Medford to see if she could relay any further details. She knew enough to say the fire was bad and resisting all efforts to contain it. All units from all over the valley were on it. Then at about 1 p.m. the power cut off. The lights, TV, internet, wifi, everything. Because our cell reception is so bad in our little vale, we rely on wifi for phone service, and without that, we have no way of knowing what is going on. So I jumped back in the car and drove to that berm to see if my phone worked there, which it did, because it buzzed immediately.
It was a firefighter friend. He tried to sound calm, but I heard apprehension in his voice. He said he and his crew, who had already been dealing with wildfires up and down the state and even into California and Nevada, were at the Almeda Fire trying to beat it back. But the fire had already jumped the highway and was burning up the hills on the east side of I-5. I don’t want to panic you or anything, he said, but it may be a good idea to start prepping.
Is it that bad?
It’s a shitshow, he said. We start working on one building, and then it hops to another. Spots fires are turning up faster than we can call them. Start packing your stuff.
I raced back home and told my wife we had to start prepping. First, though, I had to call our neighbors and tell them what our firefighter friend had said, which set them all hustling their horses and children out. We pulled out plastic bins and frantically tossed in all the irreplaceable items of our lives. Pictures, laptops, phone chargers, old books. We filled bottles with water and packed items from our fridge, where the food was already starting to warm since the power outage. I packed a single bag of clothes with one pair of jeans, some pairs of shorts and socks, a couple tees and my toiletry kit. My wife made sure the dog food and pet meds were secured and that the leashes were all ready. My daughter drove up with her co-worker and housemate Teresa to help us. They looked more excited than worried. We hitched up our old cart to the pick-up for the loading of the goats we’d have to do later. I kept looking directly overhead. Thin wispy clouds were shooting past the lazuline plain.
Jeanne wanted to see the fire for herself, so we drove to the berm. Gazing at the spectacle far down the valley, we realized the fire was gradually moving toward Talent. Someone else who’d parked by me said it was already there. More cars stopped along both sides of the road to trace the progress of the disaster. A huge eighteen-wheeler roared to a stop behind our car and a short dark man in a cap and T-shirt hopped out of the cab and made his way to me.
¿Oye, sabe usted cómo se puede volver a la autopista?
You mean, the I-5?
Si, señor. El Eye-fi. Venimos de Washington. We have to get, mi señora and me, a California.
I turned to the cab and a tiny head just visible above the dash nodded to me. I pointed toward the fire. Solo por allí. That’s the only way. From what I understand, though, they closed the freeway in both directions.
As ugly as it gets. You’re going to have to stay the night in a motel or something.
He pointed to his wife in the cab. No se preocupe. We got a bed in there, in the back. ¿Pero está seguro que no se puede pasar?
No. No se puede pasar, I said, looking at Jeanne as the black cloud dipped down and spread its fingers across the Rogue Valley. Nothing’s getting through that hellfire today.
At about three or so, I decided to get a closer look. I drove along Pioneer Road to Colver and made a right toward Talent. A huge helicopter roared low over my car and picked up water from a stock pond to my left. I watched it dip its bag into the water and then deftly bank toward the thicket of smoke. A single massive 707 skimmed the valley so slowly I thought it would crash. It emptied red powdery fire retardant from its belly over the burning trees of the Greenway. The Greenway is a long densely forested strip along Bear Creek with paved bikeways and occasional benches to sit on and birdwatch, and it ran all the way from Medford to Ashland. I’ve walked my dogs under the cottonwoods, live oak, Oregon ash, and other canopy trees that leaf out by the shallow freshwater creek. But now the trees were all lashing towers of flame, spewing embers to the other trees and rooftops. Along the road, knots of people wandered around their cars watching the town burn. I pulled into a driveway leading to a soccer field. Beside me a Mexican family huddled inside a sedan. A girl, a teenager, maybe, with long brown hair and startled eyes, stepped out to ask me if I knew anything about their mobile home park.
Always get the last word.
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No, I just got here, I said. She told me that they were home when the sheriff’s men came banging, urging them to leave immediately. They banged on other neighbors’ doors but were amazed to find the fire already lighting up the thick bushes of Himalayan blackberry a few yards away. They got what they could, which was only themselves, and sped out of the lot while the fire engines barreled past them. I looked in the back seat and saw her mother frantically talking on a cell phone while breastfeeding her baby. Another boy of about six slumped morosely in the front seat.
Is he okay?
He’s mad at me ‘cause I forgot the parakeets.
¿Y donde está tu papa?
Está por allá. She nodded to where her father went to see if their home was still standing.
¿Como se llama el parque donde está… donde está tu casa? I didn’t know the Spanish term for mobile home.
She told me the name of the mobile home park. I said I’d go see if I could get information on it. She said it was okay, her dad would be back soon, adding that an uncle was on his way from Central Point, which lies 20 miles to the north, to help her dad.
He’s coming on his bike. My mom is talking to him right now.
All along the Route 99, which runs parallel to I-5, the spot fires made the entire stretch seem like a war zone. I aimed my camera at the long line of fires while we spoke and caught the sudden fiery explosion of a propane tank in the distance, destroying the house next to it. No fire truck or police cruiser anywhere near.
I told the girl I’d be back with more information and drove into Talent as far as I could safely go. I saw the Goodnight Inn burning, as well as the Talent Café and Suntym Pools and Spas, and at the intersection there were charred telephone poles burnt into segments, held up like limp puppets by the power lines. The firefighters there were shooting water from their hoses at one structure while police set up barricades to keep people at bay. I stopped the car to see if I could approach one of the officers, and I was struck by the many neighborhood observers who came by casually to gawk, like the young couple walking their dog and the two old men gliding on their mobility scooters for a closer look at the buildings coughing up smoke and fire. I crossed to a roundabout where a sheriff’s deputy was ferrying traffic and asked after that family’s mobile home park. He shook his head and said, They’re all going up.
I took a mess of blurry photos and then drove back to the soccer field, past the shopping strip where a Subway and a Polish restaurant were fully engulfed. Firefighters surveyed the blaze from across the street, where they held their line at a service station. No way were they going to let it jump to those gas pumps.
When I arrived at the soccer field, the girl’s mother was quietly sobbing in the car. Apparently, she heard from her husband that their home was gone. The girl said they’d lost everything, even the parakeets. Her mom was all the more despondent because she also lost her business, Mantelería Reyes, which organizes and provides venues, tables, and stuff for quincenieras, bodas y fiestas. All the feria and client files for her business was in our house, the girl said, and ya se quemó todo. We have nothing left.
I wrote down my contact information on an old receipt and told her I’d be right back. All the way home, I wondered how much of the lush greenery along the road would fall victim to the fire. How much time before the flames catch up with these hillsides and consumes the houses around us? When I pulled into my driveway, I hurried to the kitchen and filled a few large bottles with water and grabbed a jumbo bag of potato chips, while Jeanne fetched a blanket, and we put them in the car for la familia Reyes. I wanted to load up a bag of steaks for them, too, but she said, where are they going to cook them?
Jeanne told me that our firefighter friend had called to say the fire was raging in Phoenix now. We were on a Level 2 Alert, which means “Be set to evacuate.”
He told me something else, she said, something really chilling.
He said to watch for spot fires in the area, but if we call 911, don’t be surprised if no one comes. They don’t have enough crews. They’re already dealing with too much. We’re on our own out here.
When I got to the soccer field, the girl introduced me to her father and uncle who were there to receive my paltry relief offerings. The father was especially grateful for the blanket, though. Para el niño, he said. He told me he was working in Ashland in someone’s backyard, laying down paving stones, when he and his co-workers heard something like muted firecrackers going off. They saw black smoke coming from a field of dry grass on the other side of the fence and realized they were hearing the crackling of raw flame. I saw where it started, he said. Our patrón called the bomberos and they came and threw water on it, but when the fire got to the blackberry bushes, that was it, he said. It went boom.
What he never expected and would never grasp was that this meager grass fire would hop-scotch four miles down the Greenway to a mobile home park in Talent and incinerate his house and the houses of all his neighbors around him. His eyes took on the blank surprised look of the suddenly homeless.
I drove into Talent, hoping to find a store open for me to buy some ice for our perishables. I should have known that the power was out here, too, and that the liquor store and grocery would be closed. Then more burning structures: Integrity Ironworks, The Hermetics Bookshop, Biscuits and Vinyl. I saw little bungalows already catching fire down the street. Strangely, there seemed to be no people about, not even first responders. Fire had won impunity for the time. Our friend was right: there simply weren’t enough resources to deal with so many fires. Every time firefighters set a line against the coming flames, embers would dance like sprites over their helmets and light fires somewhere else.
On the way home, I listened for alarms and there were none. I turned on the radio to see what emergency recommendations aired, but there was nothing. Sometimes a DJ would cut in and make a comment about the fire burning along I-5, but then the music would return, eerily framing this as just another day in the Rogue Valley. The fading blueness of the late afternoon sky seemed to confirm it.
Back home, Jeanne was already firing up the grill for dinner. Salmon-burgers and beer. We sat inside and ate by candlelight while the dogs paced anxiously, panting about the house. They knew something was wrong. We sat outside in the breezy dark listening to music on our emergency battery-operated radio. We rehashed the day’s drama and weighed the prospects of the fire reaching our farm. Then we heard a distant boom.
What’s that? Gracie asked.
I turned off the radio. Another boom.
I hear it, too, Teresa said.
Then another boom. And another, farther and fainter.
Propane tanks, I said. We all went quiet, listening to the detonations of homes and buildings, intermittent explosions punctuating the night. I took a walk through the unlit hallways of my house and contemplated all the things we’d lose, imagined everything burnt down to its ashy pith, and quietly accepted it. I had always jokingly bragged about how I’d stay and fight to the last lintel for my house, but now, after what I saw, I was ready to let it all go.
At some point in the night, we decided to get all four of us into the Subaru and drive to the berm to see the inferno’s progress. It was an astonishing sight: all the way across the valley from Ashland to Talent to Phoenix, sky and landscape glowed orange with the unconstrained burning. Gracie learned through her contacts that it was burning in Medford, Central Point, and Shady Cove, too. We drove farther down and made a left on Colman Creek Road to see how the little town of Phoenix was faring. Teresa raised herself through the sunroof and shot continuous cell phone video of the fires as we rolled along the road. Up ahead on a hemp field, I saw long blazing scarves whipping wildly in the distance, heading one way, then another, then swirling back around toward a farmhouse on Voorhees Road. We tried to head into Phoenix, but the Sheriff’s cordon headed us off and turned our Subaru around. And we still didn’t know what status our evacuation level was in now.
We paced uneasily through the house hearing the trees groan and whistle with the wind. I gazed upward for my measure of caution from the skies, and the wide swath of stars seemed to allay my concerns. But my wife was feeling antsy, and Gracie and Teresa thought we should evacuate. So I took one more solitary drive into town to see if someone could tell us what to do. I came to the intersection of Pioneer and Colver, just a scant three miles from my house, and saw right in front of me a large barn in full conflagration. I parked and got out and walked toward the fire. There was no one about. Nobody trying to douse the flames, no sirens or flashing lights. It was so quiet I could hear the pop and crackle of wood burning cleanly and the blithe chirping of frogs and crickets in the ditch behind me. The dissonance between these opposing moods, one destructive and the other brimming with life, was hypnotic, and I stood in the street watching the flames make a bonfire of this barn. As I captured it on video, I saw embers flicking upward on smokey gusts and almost take position with the stars overhead before riding the current to the horse meadow behind me. That’s when I knew it was time to go.
Through the thin layer of smoke, a Sheriff’s deputy pulled up in his cruiser and asked me was I was doing, and I said, Just trying to find out whether we’re at Level 3 Go or what. He said, we’ve been at Level 3 for some time now. If you need a Go, this is your Go.
When I got back, I told everybody it was time to head out, but they were way ahead of me. They’d packed some final groceries and personal items into their cars and parked the truck by the barn doors. Gracie and Teresa had custody of our dogs in her car, and that left only our goats and chickens to load up. The chickens were easy; they were already in the coop for the night and it was simply a matter of grabbing them in their sleep and placing them one by one in a large plastic dog kennel, which we hefted onto the bed of the truck. The goats were tougher to herd into the cart. Some of them came easy, but a few seized up as soon as we grabbed them, so I had to carry them into the cart myself. Others, the kids, scampered away and made a scene, bleating and kicking like they were going to market. It took us nearly thirty minutes in abject darkness to get them all secured. It was about 1 a.m. when we hit the road, heading west toward Jacksonville, where my wife had already arranged for us to spend the night at the home of our friends Cody and Laurel.
There went our caravan of three, me in the truck towing the cart, Jeanne in her Subaru and my Gracie and Teresa in my daughter’s car, winding through the hills in the middle of the night. Just ten minutes into our drive, I felt the thunk-thunk-thunk of a tire going flat. I knew if I drove on it farther, sparks would fly and maybe start another fire, so I pulled into the driveway of the nearest house, which had a giant log-built Adirondack chair on its front lawn, and got out to survey the damage. The small tire of our substandard little cart had stripped completely to the rim. At that point I didn’t know what to do. I was beyond the point of panic. I wanted to yell at somebody. Gracie and Teresa determined that the best help was to drive on to their motel room in Grants Pass with our dogs. That was when the front porch light came on and the man of the house stepped out. An older genial-looking man with a tie-dye t-shirt over his girth and graying chest-hair frothing over the collar.
What’s the problem here?
I told him the situation and how sorry I was to block his driveway. He looked at the flat tire and said, I think I got a tire that size.
Yessir, but right now we need the goats out of here. We’re evacuating. Our house is just down the road that way.
The neighbor, whose name was Daryl, said he’d been up all night watching all the cars roll back and forth past his house. He was particularly tickled by the super-sized rigs trying to maneuver through these narrow windy roads getting their wheels caught up in furrows and culverts.
I told him about the driver who wanted to get his semi past the fire to California, and he laughed.
Reminds me of a joke, he said. How do you get to California?
How? I said.
Make a right… and go straight to hell! He laughed again.
We’re from California, Jeanne said, and we all laughed together.
That lowered my temperature some, allowing for Jeanne to come up with a plan. We’d load the goats up two by two in the Subaru and she’d drive them back to the barn, then I would unhitch the cart and push it onto the David’s lawn and return for it in the morning. Jeanne drove the goats back while I stayed with the cart and chatted with our neighbor, who told me he’d been checking in with his buddy, a former local police chief, who had advance word of any evacuations. David was a woodworker, he made and sold his own furniture, which explained the giant lawn chair on his front yard. I said, sir, you just got yourself your next big customer. When the last three goats remained to ferry back, I loaded the two kids in the truck cab while Jeanne put the other in the rear cargo compartment and we said goodnight to our kind neighbor.
Once we secured all the goats in their pens, Jeanne presented me with her Sophie’s choice. We could bring two goats with us and let the rest take their chances. I said let’s bring four. And so Sam, Lila, Coco, and Pachamama rode with us to Jacksonville, leaving five goats behind, including, ironically, our one good milker named Sophie. We arrived at roughly 2:30 a.m. at Laurel and Cody’s house, and though they were groggy with sleep, they happily welcomed us in and even set up the pen for our barnyard beasts. Still, I couldn’t bear to let the others burn. I resolved to go back to rescue a few more. Cody suggested that if he brought his own pickup along, we might save them all. So while Laurel helped Jeanne unpack and snapped funny pictures of the goats, we geared up to head back to the farm.
Just as we arrived, I asked Cody if we could just take a little drive up to that gravel berm to assess the progress of the fire. When we got there, I was struck by how less intense the glow in the sky seemed. We drove toward that same intersection where I had seen the lone barn flaring up, and neither flames nor embers were visible anywhere. The wind had also died down during the night. The worst of the fire seemed to be past. I told Cody that the goats would be safe where they were, after all.
We’re done here, I said.
We arrived at Cody’s just after 4 a.m. and over some well-earned ice-cold beers, we four shared stories and videos of the fires I had recorded all that hellish day. It was curious to me how all the safe-distancing and mask-wearing we’d adhered to before was forgotten in the wake of this frantic night, but by this time we were so tired all we could think of was how to stagger off to bed. In these times of strife and evacs, the friends who open their house to you evince the kindness of angels and send us on restful slumbers. Even so, it was scarcely 8 a.m. when the need to check on our farm woke us up. After some brisk showers and hot coffee, we thanked Laurel and Cody for their profound hospitality and drove home. On the way, we stopped to examine our cart where we’d parked it. David of the night before trotted out grinning broadly and told us he’d changed the tire. Free of charge, he said. Come by any time and I’ll help you hitch it up.
This uncommon kindness, I have learned, is common in the valley. I’ll be shopping here for furniture come Christmas, I told him.
Our house and barn were intact, our trees still leafy and thick with birds, our beasts all fine and clamoring for feed. But the air was a foul choking hue of yellow-brown, a fine distillation of all the houses, trees, cars, and debris that burned to cinders. The smoke would remain over the valley for weeks after, obliterating from view the sun and any prospect of easy recovery from this fire. Entire neighborhoods remained coated in the red chalky chemicals that put the fires out too late. Even months later, the trees along Bear Creek in Phoenix stand as their own gravestones and husks of cars sit where they burned in front of the rubble that used to be someone’s business or home. So many homes. So many families. So many people like the Reyes who had too little to begin with, and now have even less than that. Livelihoods, careers, incomes, incinerated in seconds. Almost 3,000 structures destroyed, shops, businesses, duplexes, houses, apartments, mobile homes, orchards. And three souls lost. The community is still in deep trauma, hardly able to grasp the shock of this calamity in the wake of Covid-19, but like the man who helped us change the tire on our cart and expected nothing in return but a wave whenever we drive by, the Rogue Valley will rise to its own rescue. What can you expect of a town named after a mythic bird emerging from its immolation? Already, the sky is clear of smoke and I can see amid the scorched landscape and skeletal buildings of little Phoenix the snowflake decorations annually fastened on every light pole in time for the holidays.
November 22, 2020