Thousands of homes were destroyed last year in the Almeda Fire — Oregon’s most destructive in years. Many are still displaced. What keeps them from leaving? Unbreakable bonds.
ASHLAND, Ore. — Last September, after high winds pushed flames through a drought-parched strip of southern Oregon called the Rogue Valley, razing entire communities, as many as 8,500 people found themselves suddenly homeless and facing the same question: Should I stay?
A year after the Almeda fire, hundreds who are still in trailers, hotels and other temporary homes continue to grapple with that question. They have faced vast challenges in rebuilding their lives in a region where affordable homes are in short supply and the competition is fierce. Above all, there’s a looming sense that more fires are sure to come.
Still, residents are reluctant to leave a community they are bound to by work, school or family.
“I know the people here,” said Gladiola Garcia, whose family has been living in a string of temporary accommodations with help from relief organizations and the state government. “If I go to another place I will be lost, more than I’m lost here,” she said.
With a warming world unsettling more American lives and wildfires burning across parts of the West, some, like Jairo Gomez, who now lives with his family in a donated trailer, have reasoned that moving somewhere else might be futile anyway. “Everything is changing,” he said. “You’re going to start seeing wildfires everywhere.”
The New York Times followed six families as they struggled to preserve their place in this valley. What little they still have is here, they say. It’s home.
Has climate change upended your life? We want to hear from you.
“We live in a garage, sort of. It has a little kitchen, one room, a living room and a restroom. The owner said, ‘You can stay for the time that you need.’ It is too small. The baby needs more space. We are the only ones in the area. It is like being alone on an island.
We went back four days after the fire. The furniture smelled like smoked meat. It couldn’t be used anymore. We threw all the clothes away. We saved the important documents, things from my daughter’s quinceañera, a photograph of my brother who passed away and my photos as a child. I have them, but I can’t nail anything to the wall here.
I’m looking for a rental, but they are very expensive. The rent is $1,400 for two bedrooms. Trailers are very expensive. A new one is $169,000. Maybe the small one is $85,000. I don’t have $85,000 for a trailer. I earn a little bit more than the minimum wage.
“We are the only ones in the area. It is like being alone on an island.”
There were times I couldn’t sleep. I get stomach pain, a strong headache and part of my shoulders cramps up. The doctor told me that it was stress. To go looking for a house and not finding anything and not having the money to buy something bigger is really hard.
In the trailer park, I had friends and good neighbors. They would sometimes come to my house to eat, sometimes to make cookies. I’d finish my work and my neighbors would say, ‘You come. My wife or my brother or something is having a birthday.’ Little parties became big parties. All my friends and neighbors have been moving around. We don’t know where they really are.
I have thought about moving to another state, but this is my community.
I try not to make my family feel sad. I never thought I would be in this situation, but I am hopeful I will find a place. Then we would try to heal ourselves from what happened to us.”
“Whenever I see black smoke — the bad smoke — I can’t stop shaking.
The kids’ hot water heater caught on fire recently. I started throwing up. I was shaking. Luckily it only burned for a couple of minutes. But all of the smoke came through the outlets so their whole trailer was filled with smoke.
It’s kind of like you’re constantly camping. We have a sink, a stove, a microwave, an oven, a refrigerator. They’re all small, but we have them. The oven doesn’t cook the same as a regular oven does. The showers are really tiny.
We were in the process of buying. The mobile home was going to cost $3,000. We had paid $1,000 and were making $100 payments on top of our rent. We were trying to sell it to get a down payment for an actual house with a yard. After the fire hit, those homes went up in price.
“I really want to stay. This community is amazing.”
We can stay here until FEMA pulls out. Every month we have to requalify. You have to be actively trying to find a place. You have to have three phone numbers of real estate agents or rental companies or whatever people you’ve talked to.
I have days where, out of the blue, I’ll start crying. I just need to let it out. At work, I try not to think about anything else. I take care of hospice patients. Then when I’m at home, I deal with all the other stuff.
We may end up having to leave. I really want to stay. This community is amazing. The school has helped the kids tremendously since the fire. We have been doing everything we can to stay here because I wanted my daughter to graduate with her friends.
My kids make friends with some pretty good kids. Our house seemed to be where they always met. They would come over to play board games, play video games, listen to music, have bonfires.
We still do bonfires here. The kids come over still on the weekends. I keep buckets of water out there just in case.
A house is just a structure. Your home is the people.”
“Toward the middle of January, I accidentally missed a phone call. There was a voice mail. I listened to it and I broke down. After searching for so long, we finally secured a spot. It was overwhelming, but I was super happy.
I wish it could have been closer to my sister. She is still at Talent Mobile Estates in the row that survived.
Everyone there was basically family. All the kids played together. I met my best friends there. We were always at the pool, riding bikes, playing ball. My favorite part about the trailer park was the trees during fall. They were red and pink combined with yellow ones. It was just super pretty.
Everything was burnt to the ground. Everything you worked so hard for, gone in less than two minutes.
Afterward, they were bouncing us back and forth between hotels. One of my friends knew a place that was becoming open. They had concerts there. That spot had beds in every corner. There was a bed up on the stage.
“Leaving was never an option. Home is where families are. All my family’s here.”
There were 11 of us. We tried to make it as normal as we could for the kids. We dressed up on Halloween and took the kids trick or treating. We had our Christmas tree up too. It was harder at night because you’re not in your own bed. You’re not home.
Every day we were out looking. Everything was taken or out of our budget. Every time, we tried. We tried our best and then heard back, ‘No.’ It knocked us down all the way straight to zero.
There wasn’t much housing left until we found this place. It’s $775. The rent now is a little bit higher than it was at the mobile home. Our plan had been to save enough money for a down payment on a house. We’re trying to keep the same plan. Maybe in at least three more years, we’ll be there.
But leaving was never an option. Home is where families are. All my family’s here. My work is here. My life is here. Having to get up and move would be stressful all over again, like starting out from zero.”
“I can close my eyes and see everything around me on fire like that day. It was terrifying. When I got to the highway and turned around, my home was gone.
We lost everything.
I came from Oaxaca, Mexico, in 2006. The valley, that’s what made me stay. I said, ‘Here’s perfect.’ Then I met my wife, Elva, and everything was perfect, like living in a dream. When I moved in, she told me, ‘The mobile home is mine, but now we have to fix it.’
It was really old. No windows. No heater. Leaking water everywhere. We did a lot of work. When Grandpa and Grandma came, we had to add another room. When Grandma had a stroke, we had to build a big ramp.
We planted strawberries. We had a peach tree, a cherry tree and a plum tree. Every day, I’d wake up and water my garden, pick up eggs, feed my chickens.
“I don’t want to run away like a coward and not face my problems. I want to rebuild.”
We thought we were fine before the fire. We weren’t. We had our mobile home, but we didn’t own the land. My plan was, with what FEMA gave us, to buy the property. ‘I would like to do that, but I can’t,’ the owner told me. ‘I sold the property.’
We’re on 26 waiting lists. We applied for low-income homes. Low-income apartments are $900 a month for two rooms and one bathroom. We make around $2,000 a month.
We’ve lived in this R.V. since December. Me, my wife, my daughter and my youngest, we sleep in the big bed. The R.V.s have showers but it’s for emergencies because it’s a small space. You have to use the public ones.
Some people say, ‘Why do you want to stay in Phoenix?’ There’s something there I like: the school district. It’s bilingual. I wake up at 7 a.m. and I take them to school. Every day, we spend a lot on gas. $80 every week.
I know I can start over in another place, but I don’t want to run away like a coward and not face my problems. I want to rebuild. I want a little piece of property so if something happens, we can come back. I don’t want anything for free. I want a chance, for somebody to believe in us and say, ‘OK, I’m going to lend you that money.’”
“I live alone and have for most of my adult life. I’ve lived in a lot of places in the States and in Europe. I moved here in 2001 when I was 60. I had been an attorney doing corporate law at that point in my life.
I built a house on Ashland Creek, a really nice piece of property. But I could never find a job, and I eventually had to sell it. I moved into a manufactured home in Talent.
I did add a wood-burning fireplace. A fireplace has always been magical to me. I put in a skylight. I expanded the sliding doors so there was more light. I had an enormous amount of original artwork: paintings, sculptures, carvings. One was a carving of a baby walrus. I miss him a lot. Most of the furniture I had was wood. That would have been gone in a split second.
“I looked around: no family, no nothing. It felt as though I had no connections to the universe, to the world, to anybody.”
Two weeks after the fire, I turned 80. I looked around: no family, no nothing. It felt as though I had no connections to the universe, to the world, to anybody.
I moved into the R.V. in November. I have always made places feel like home. I didn’t in that place. It was so confining. Recently, I had my right knee replaced. I lost an enormous amount of body conditioning. I just survived there.
I thought I had a house lined up to rent beginning Jan. 1. But then it wasn’t available and it wasn’t available. It went into February and I said, ‘OK, enough of that.’ But the ‘angels’ appeared around me. A woman I did not know before all of this contacted a man in Talent who is rebuilding an apartment complex he had finished before the fire. I went to the top of his list.
I absolutely know that this apartment building could burn to the ground again. I won’t have much in it when it happens, if it happens. But I just didn’t have any place to go. I have 20 years’ worth of familiarity here and friends. Insofar as I have any roots, they’re here.”
“The next day I got up early. I said: ‘I’m going to see my house. Even though they already told me it burned, I need to see it.’ We walked to the area. It was very hard to look at people who were crying and screaming. I remember a white woman doing that. I tried to communicate with her, to feel her pain, because I was in the same state. I wanted to give her a hug.
The disaster — what comes after the fire — continues to this day. We fought before to have what we had and the fire took it from us. Now we have to start over and fight.
For four months, we stayed in an apartment that an organizer found for us. Then the state put us in a place that was not safe. We had to fight to get my children into a safer place.
Some nights you don’t rest because you have to think about where you have to go, where you are going to ask for something or what you’re going to do to get something. You go to bed with a headache and you wake up with a headache.
In spite of everything I feel this is my place. If I don’t know what to do here, if I feel desperate, I can ask, I can go places. In another place, I’ll be lost. This is where I belong. My children belong here.
“Some nights you don’t rest because you have to think about where you have to go, where you are going to ask for something.”
But being in this tight space is very frustrating. In the last home, we all could sit for dinner and play. We could invite friends over. My bed was a king size. It had a nice bedspread and big pillows. My children would always get in and lay down.
When we moved into the hotel, we bought bedspreads. In the mornings, when I make the beds, I say, ‘OK, this is mine.’ These are small things. Maybe it doesn’t matter, but for me it does.
I always say to myself that when I have a house again, I will make it look beautiful. I want my bed again. One day, we‘ll have a home. When? I do not know yet.”