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The Creek Fire jumps CA-168 on Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2020 in Fresno County, CA. (Photo: Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

The Creek Fire jumps CA-168 on Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2020 in Fresno County, CA. (Photo: Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Listen Quick, There's a Fire

Our planet, the only home we humans currently know, is quite literally on fire—and, even as I write this, my home and family is in the very frightening middle of it.

Debi Smith

Had to push pause yesterday on writing a piece about "Brotherly Love in the Age of a Dumpster Fire Presidency" in order to prepare to evacuate in case the winds change direction and a real fire burns down my entire town. Even if fire never laps at my doorstep—though I'm increasingly certain it likely will at some point here in Ashland, Oregon, considering the dry, hot tinder the west has become—figuring out how to survive a fire, and what you would save when you have at least a little bit of time to think ahead about it, is a prudent exercise.

Ashland is only a few miles north of the California border. Three of the most destructive California fires in the past three years, and in California's history, have been less than six hours from my home in Ashland: the Tubbs Fire in 2017 near Santa Rosa, the Carr Fire in 2018 near Redding, and then the Camp Fire later that same year, all of which blew smoke into Ashland, and the latter of which I wrote about—"By Accident of Fate: The Fires in Paradise," published by Common Dreams.

Ever since immersing myself in many of the Camp Fire details, I've been closely following all of the other fires as well. Too many historic fires across the region this year to detail in this writing. Monday evening before finally falling asleep, as I had done the previous three nights, I was in bed reading about the Creek Fire near Shaver Lake in the Sierra National Forest. A dear friend and I had considered trying to meet at Shaver Lake in late August for some socially distant camping, but then we postponed. While trying to sleep, I wondered at the horror of being trapped with no way out when your only intention had been to get outside and enjoy the great outdoors with your friends and loved ones.

I resolved that night to get up and do a better job preparing our own family if a fire were to suddenly erupt here.

That fire erupted around 11 am the next morning.

My husband called from work at the southeast end of town, “Listen quick. There's a fire. Hearing it's somewhere near Quiet Village (a neighborhood on the other end of town). Maybe think about what you'd need to do/take if there's an evacuation.”

I hung up and immediately called one of the owners of Eagle Mill Farm, who I was supposed to meet within the hour. “Hi Ron, hopefully it isn't a big deal, but apparently there's a grass fire near Quiet Village. Probably not a good idea for me to head that way right now. Plus, I'm going to take a look at securing my stuff, just in case. Can we reschedule?”

I was immediately embarrassed at my message when I remembered how close Quiet Village is to Eagle Mill Farm. Ron called back a little while later, “Yeah Deb, it's a big deal! Not even sure I can make it over there! Freeway closed, roads through town backed up, I'll talk to you soon.”

My neighbor owns a tiny home that he rents out over at Eagle Mill Farm. He later informed me that he and Ron did a bucket brigade for hours, hauling bucket after bucket up from Bear Creek. I haven't talked to Ron again yet, but my neighbor told me they saved the farm and buildings, even though everything around them burned.

Many social media mentions from outside the area incorrectly, and wrongly, reported that all of Ashland had burned to the ground. Official reports are still trickling in from the region, details are still spotty as I write, and conditions can change at any moment in the future, but currently most of Ashland, thankfully, has been spared.

Being right in the area of Ashland that did burn, Eagle Mill Farm was fortunate. Others weren't so lucky. Burger King burned, while the gas station directly next door stands. Nearby motels were damaged. An entire mobile home park behind Burger King was lost.

An Ashland family who has spent countless hours serving the un-housed in our community lost their own home in that park. Despite their pain and all they've lost, this family immediately reached out to check in on the un-housed community impacted by the fire. While it will not replace the heartbreaking loss of treasured family items and much-beloved pets, the community is giving back to them in the form of a GoFundMe account set up to help them get back on their feet.

The fire spread rapidly past Burger King and the mobile home park towards the small towns of Talent and Phoenix, which lie a few scant miles outside of Ashland. The fire, initially named the Glendower fire and now more commonly referred to as the Almeda Fire, quickly overpowered attempts at fire control, and razed entire neighborhoods as it churned and licked its way toward Medford, the 4th largest metro area in Oregon. In its path, the fire took numerous single-family homes, multiple mobile home parks, care facilities, pets who were home alone . . . . We've since heard from or about friends and acquaintances who've lost everything. We grieve for them, but so far it sounds like everyone was evacuated quickly and safely. We do worry though about the many seniors, and those less mobile, who may not have been alerted to the calls for evacuation, or who may have been unable to mobilize if they were alerted. We haven't heard of any yet, but it will be a miracle if there aren't any fatalities. 

I write the last sentence and then my daughter, reading reports, says, “The first fatality has been reported in Ashland.”

Fluid and sad here as I sit trying to write, surrounded by bins we would hope to take if we are evacuated and have time—bins full of photos, my kids' artwork, a painting my grandson did when he was three, essential papers, years of journals, and a few other odds and ends—while reading about the loss of everything others are dealing with right this moment.

Off balance as I sit here listening to the terrifying scanner coverage on RVTV that is curiously juxtaposed against a happy jazz tune playing in the background. Maybe the station director thinks we will be less stressed by the news if it is accompanied by happy, soothing music?

Thankful for my loved ones being safe as I check in with my son and his girlfriend down the street, and as my daughter and her boyfriend sit nearby and update me regularly on what they are learning, and offer quick suggestions when my brain searches frantically for a word here or there.

Sometimes tense when we all got a little irritable with each other when I didn't appreciate their efforts at finding a suitable evacuation path.

Fluid, sad, off balance, thankful, tense, and also seemingly normal somehow. We search for info. We wonder how we can help. We argue. We load bins into the truck. And then we hang laundry and enjoy a meal together in the garden.

I pause in my writing and look out across the valley to Grizzly Peak, and note how surreal things also are. The bright blue sky? When my neighbors not even three miles away are looking at ashes? If I didn't know differently, I'd consider it another beautiful day in Southern Oregon. But I do know differently.

Scratch that. I now see a new big billowing cloud peaking up over Grizzly Peak's west shoulder. Is that a new fire? Or is that the Obenchain Fire? (A fire that is currently, as of this writing, threatening my grandson's home.) As I write, the scanner continues to report that there are smaller fires popping up everywhere, so it's difficult to know at this point.

One of our most significant immediate issues yesterday, and now again today, aside from trying to source accurate information, has been trying to determine our exit if the winds shift, and we are moved to a Level 2 Evacuation Alert.

One reason for this difficulty was due to the fact that southbound Interstate-5, the main north-south artery here on the West Coast, was closed and routed through the small streets of downtown Ashland. It turned the streets of our little corner of paradise into a clogged bottleneck. No movement for hours. My usually quiet neighborhood street above “the boulevard” turned into Frontage Road. I'm not complaining about an inconvenience here. I'm making note that this situation would have resulted in an enormous tragedy had the wind changed slightly. Well-defined plans matter. As does following the playbook when any given scenario plays out. 

The second reason for difficulty determining an exit route? Fires are burning in all directions. As a neighbor who lives in the vicinity of the fire's outbreak asked so succinctly on the Nextdoor app this morning, “All we heard was that I-5 south was closed, then I-5 north was closed, then 99, Dead Indian Memorial [there are community efforts to change the name of this route], fire on 140, fire on 62, stay off of Valley View, Happy Camp burned, Yreka on fire . . . . What exactly are we supposed to do if the wind shifts or another fire starts?”

If I can make one thing clear here, this is not climate change. Hang with me for another second here. This is a full-blown Climate Crisis!

And while I wish I had time to write a piece here that directs any potential readers, especially the choir of unbelievers, to the towering stack of credible data that proves beyond the burnt shadow of too many communities that the climate is in crisis, and all the things that this crisis leads to (such as hundreds of thousands dead to a virus that was exacerbated by climate change, for example—or due to a certain dumpster fire), and what we need to do about it, well, I don't have that time today.

In the face of this fire breathing down the neck of my community, I don't have time to try, as I usually do, formulating the best sentences I can, researching and inserting quality links, taking days if not weeks to refine my arguments and theses to be as accurate and incontrovertible as possible. Nope. No time for that today. And maybe not even necessary, like most of the stuff I own but declined to add to my evacuation bins.

And we don't have that luxury regarding the climate crisis, either. We don't have time to argue and plead and plan and debate the plan and then argue about the data again and then plan some more and then have another debate about the agreed upon plan and then wait a little longer before acting and then there's a change of “leadership” that throws it all out anyway. 

The bottom line? Our planet, the only home we humans currently know, is quite literally on fire. And we only have a very short period of time to figure out how we can work together to put the fire out, and save our home and the beings and things we truly cherish.


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Debi Smith

Debi Smith

Debi Smith—wife, mother, grandmother, and concerned American and human being traveling aboard this small mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam—writes from her home in Ashland, Oregon. She welcomes your thoughtful comments, and ideas about how we can come together in search of common ground, at debi@mind.net.

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