A podcast by Michelle Coradetti and Alan Harper
Hello. I am Michelle Coradetti and I am here with my podcast partner, Alan Harper. We are both past presidents of our respective rotary. Clubs here in the Rogue Valley. In Oregon. We are embarking on episode 3 of the Almeda Fire Rising From the Ashes in the previous two episodes, you heard and experienced what different Rotarians here in our Valley and also residents experienced on that horrific day of September 8 2020.
Thanks, Michelle the end of episode 2. We heard probably the most emotional and moving interview that we did, from Catalina Gamez, and her son Adriel, who lost everything. And it was just as emotional, hearing their thoughts and observations on trying to come back and see if they had a home, or any possessions the next morning,
The part that got to me wasn’t that my stuff was gone. It was the walk there. We had to cross over the freeway on-ramp.
Was fire under the freeway.
All I remember hearing is people yelling in English, Spanish, whatever language, they knew just screaming that there was a fire underneath us, but we were too determined to turn around at that point. There was wind sand, dirt blowing into our eyes. People, crying, destroyed walking away from their, their homes. They’re just defeated because they lost everything. I remember walking there seeing my friends and not being able to go up to them because I didn’t know the words to say that could help and just having a walk. I remember seeing my friends house is gone memories of like being there at times.
you know, like,
I don’t know, but then we get to where our place was and I tried to be strong, you know, be as comforting as I could. I made jokes. Kept smiling
Took some pictures for our insurance, whatever. She asked me to do.
And then – we just walk back. That was it.
From an economic perspective guyed Tower, the chief Economist for the state of Oregon sums up the devastation and describes. Those populations here in the Rogue Valley that were affected, most by the Almeda fire.
It really impacted folks in the Phoenix Talent District. I’ve heard estimates, I think it was around fourty percent of families in, for example, at Phoenix Elementary, lost a family home. So really devastating, because a lot of that, those homes were, you know, kind of here is a “naturally occurring affordable housing.” You know, they were a lot of older homes, smaller, maybe single-wide
mobile homes, and it was affordable. You know, the lot of those homes were paid for possibly under insured. And so, so that was one area, those, you know, the family garden. And there were also, you know, According to some data I looked at from census data about one in four of the people in that fire affected area, were over 65 . So you had a lot of older people that lived on their own or older couples, but a lot of retirees people in retirement age in those mobile home parks as well too. So, I know you always, you know, you hear a lot about, you know, the families and being able to at least reach out to the families, to the schools, but you know how do those older people? How do they connect to services? That’s you know, something that always I was worried about too.
One thing to remember about that Almeda fire, was that on September 8, the Rogue Valley had record winds and it’s those winds that really swept the fire from the edges of Ashland North down to Bear Creek Valley into the communities of talent and Phoenix.
The wind was blowing so fast. That the firefighters could barely keep up with it. But also caused a random hopscotch pattern of destruction. Taking one home setting, another business on fire. Sometimes skipping entire neighborhoods and setting a fire in an entirely different place. The randomness and the pattern of destruction is something that the community continues to struggle with and everyone we interviewed had stories of how that randomness and the feeling of it impacted them.
And one of them is a really dear Rotary friend, and I didn’t even know that was his house until days later. And it came up at a Rotary meeting that, hey, you got evacuated. I got a lot of redemption out of feeling like, okay, at least somebody’s house we saved is somebody, that is really dear to me because of Rotary that I know this person and we’ve developed a friendship in our club. Often times, we spend from 5:30 in the morning until our club meeting starts at seven getting ready, putting out breakfast. And so we had spent a lot of good time together. And I just thought, wow, we save Jim’s house.
And I truly felt that my house was would be gone. Why wouldn’t I? I mean and then they always tell you, the insurance companies, “Oh, well manufactured homes go up, boom, like that.” I am amazed that they were able to save it.
And I thought. Wow. What happened? How is this possible? How come this house didn’t burn? My place burn. The next house is still there. What happened? I couldn’t understand what happened. So when we got there, everything was gone. There was nothing there. Absolutely nothing.
There’s a hundred and forty four, twenty one survived. And you look at me. Why did I survive? Why did Gloria survive? Why did those two? And they said that those wind shifted just like that.
It may seem random because an engine happened to be available. They happen to have a tank of water and they drove by and this building was burning and this one wasn’t and they protected the one that wasn’t burning. And they moved on and nobody will know except the firefighters that were there. Which buildings got protected. But clearly with many, many dozens. We had every fire engine, we could get from Jackson, Josephine County on this fire. There were a lot of saves, a lot of firefighters did courageous, amazing things and saved buildings. And most people won’t know where that was, and it seems random. But there were a lot of hard work.
it jumped and it would go here and there. So Davies Diner, right next door was saved the RV park was saved and it skipped through various locations in Phoenix. I thought it interesting, there was no way they could have prevented the fire from getting to these spots but it seemed like all the food places were spared.
Probably the overall epic victory is this fire was stopped.
It is truly a blessing. This fire was extinguished when it was and did not wreak havoc on any of the other communities here in the Rogue Valley. Imagine this tragedy happening to you. And how would you cope moving forward?
We don’t really talk about it. No one really does. You don’t really want to, you know, it helps to open up the people every once in a while and like talk about what happened and find reassurance that, you know, like you went through that. But even if it happens again, you know, you’ll be fine. Like, my mom said you have the people that matter and that’s all you can really ask for. So we don’t really talk about it. I I mean, just on my cross country team alone. There was two of us who lost their houses and we never, we never talked about it.
I don’t know. We just kept going on, like nothing happened. Every once in awhile. You make jokes about it because you don’t want to think about it, like as something that really affected you. And you don’t show that. But it’s true. Like it happened, it hurt, and it’s still there. So, it’s always going to be there.
A lot of people have done a lot of grieving over this on all sides. And firefighters included, have done a lot of counseling and stress management. Just trying to download the whole experience with friends colleagues, you know, counselors, whatever it takes to get through it. It’s, it’s really challenging.
I never stopped working during that time. Yeah, I didn’t take a day off. I’d never called in. Every day for me, was, I went to school online. I got my car. I went to work, came, home went to bed and did the exact same thing every night, because I just didn’t want to have that liv or think with what was going on.
That experience is going to weigh heavy on a lot of First Responders for a long time, and the physical piece of it as well. Just all the smoke exposure to incredibly, toxic horrible smoke. You know, enough firefighters died from cancer every year as it is. And, you know, when firefighters go into one burning house, you can minimize that exposure. But when you’re in a neighborhood of hundreds of burning houses, you can’t minimize that kind of exposure. And it’s, it’s toxic. And there probably are long-term health effects that are going to be a part of a lot of people’s lives. And I hope that it doesn’t turn out that way and I hope that we don’t have repeated exposures. So I’m on exposure number two from fires like that, and I’m kind of worried.
And why am I standing? So here I’m staying at this motel and I’m going through major Survivor guilt. And I’m thinking, why was I saved? And all these people? I know they have nothing.
What Alan and I had hoped to achieve with these first three episodes of the Almeda Fire Rising From the Ashes, was for you to hear first-hand what fellow wrote Rotarians and community members here in the Rogue Valley experienced during this tragic event.
This will lead up to our final episode, you will hear how the United Rotary Clubs of Southern Oregon were formed and stepped up to the plate. Stay tuned.
And it’s only now that people know where they can go. Instead of like it took something, this horrible for people to like finally know who they can turn to who they like, who’s actually going to be there to help rebuild. And I, I want to know that there’s people still out there willing to give anything they can for their city and just their County.