This is just one story of the recent Almeda fire that hit our community. It began in March 2018. I was back in Ashland selling our farm and all our household items. I had a beautiful extended Yakima bike rack. I had put it on Craigslist to sell but was not getting any bites. Finally, after several weeks of waiting, I decided to make it an amazing gift for someone and price it low. I received a phone call from Marilu Medina and her husband Moises. They came that evening to my house in Ashland. It was late and dark. My house was empty. It might have seemed like a deal too good to be true.
Marilu and her husband loved the bike rack. We started to talk. My kids were learning Spanish. Marilu herself had grown up in a Latino family in Southern Oregon. Her husband was an immigrant, now working in Southern Oregon. Together they had 4 children. The bike rack would be perfect for them.
We parted ways. A few days later, I was on Facebook. I recognized Marilu and sent her a Friend Request. I then saw an occasional post from Marilu about her family but never thought much about it. Then the Almeda fire happened and I started seeing Marilu´s story. Her family lost everything. I was not sure why but I kept thinking about her experience. Idecided to reach out to her and talk. Patie and I had already started working on Heart Rising and we needed more information on exactly how we could design our model to help those in need.
Marilu agreed to speak with me and it was only then I realized that the hand of fate played its card. As Marilu shared her story, she told me that the bike rack that I had sold to her had been one of the last saving graces for her family. They were only able to rescue all the kids bikes before the fire took everything. I was overcome with deep emotions. I would never have known that a small little connection could lead to where we are today.
In today’s interview, I speak with Marilu about her experience and we begin to explore the process of where we go next in the recovery efforts of Southern Oregon.
Hi Marilu, thank you so much for being here to speak with me today. How is everyone?
We are taking things one day at a time. It’s been a roller coaster of emotions and knowing my family and friends are in the same situation hurts the most. Seeing the community come together gives me hope that we will rise up from this tragedy.
Marilu, I know there are so many people affected at the moment, and your story is just one of many. What are you hearing from other affected by the fire?
Yes, I’m one of many who have been affected by the fires. The reality is many are living in hotels, emergency shelters, and in families’ living rooms. We are currently staying at my husband’s sister house, while my older boys are staying with their uncle because of minimal space. We hope soon we can move into my mom’s house and be under the same roof. But her home sustained smoke damage, and we are waiting to hear from her insurance to come in and evaluate her home.
There are many who don’t know what the future holds for their families. The days and weeks are starting to pass. We don’t want to be forgotten. I’m afraid we could end up being pushed out of our community because there is limited affordable housing/rentals.
To begin with, will you please introduce us to your family and your life here in the valley?
We are a family of six. Two boys, twin girls and a son who was born into heaven. My husband Moises is a landscaper and built his landscaping business from the ground up. We unfortunately lost all of his equipment, except for a blower and weed wacker. Most of our extended family are here in the Rogue Valley. They were also affected by the fires. My husband’s brother lost his home and his sister did too. We love our community, family, and friends and this is why we want to stay.
What was your family doing the day of the fire? How did things transpire during this event that you lost your entire house and more?
The night before the fires, we were awakened by gusting winds. I smelled smoke late into the night and we all stepped outside to see where it was coming from. We assumed they were coming from the other fires outside the valley. It was hard to sleep that night with the amount of wind we were having.
The day of the fires my husband went to work in Ashland. I stayed home with the kids. My husband happened to be done with work early. On the way home, he saw the smoke and fire from the freeway. It must have just started when he saw it because there were no emergency responders. When he got home he asked me if I knew there was a fire. I didn’t know and I ran outside to take a look. I started to wonder what we should do. I went on social media to see if anyone posted anything and I didn’t see anything. I called my mom to come over just in case we had to evacuate and we could put things in her car too. My husband started knocking on neighbors’ doors to let them know of the fires. We saw one by one leave. By then my mom had come.
All of a sudden, a gust of wind with smoke came in. My mom has breathing issues and started to cough uncontrollably. My husband started to worry because of the girls. We decide to leave right away. The only things we took were some important papers and a laundry hamper that had some clothes in it. My kids managed to take their bikes because we had a bike rack attached to the car. I think in the back of their minds they thought if we had to leave the car we would have the bikes for backup.
We went in two cars and took off to Ashland to go to his brother’s house, who said it was safe there. Meanwhile my mom left back to her house in Phoenix. By then they were not letting cars into Ashland, so we turned around and decided to regroup at my dad’s house who lived up the road from us. We started to see the airplane and helicopters coming in to try to stop the fires. My husband went on top of the roof and saw that it was getting worse. By then my dad had come home. I told my husband to go back home and get some things out of the house. But it was too late. There was someone down below escorting cars to leave. They wouldn’t let him go back and so we left going towards Phoenix.
As we were in traffic I could see the fires on Highway 99. I had no idea they were that close. I called my dad and told him to get out of his house. As we got into Phoenix the smoke seemed to get worse. At that moment I received a text from my husband’s client/friend who said if we didn’t have a place to go we could go over to their place. I called my mom and told her to leave Phoenix as the smoke was getting bad. We landed at my husband’s client/friend’s house and stayed there overnight.
Later that day my husband went into Talent and found that our mobile home was on fire as well as many other homes. It was hard to sleep that night afraid the fires could come over where we were at. The sound of the wind scared me and every now and then you could hear explosions from afar. The next day we woke up and headed back into Talent and saw the total destruction of what the fires did, it was devastating.
Can you tell us about the losses of your family, your extended family, friends, and neighbors?
We lived in a tight community with families and friends. It was a place where our kids could freely ride their bikes and hang out with friends. They could frequently go to the Flywheel Bicycle shop to meet their bike’s needs. My brother-in-law in Talent lost his place. My sister in-law in Phoenix lost her place and my mom’s house sustained smoke damage.
Marilu, being in the midst of this, what have you seen as your immediate needs and the needs of others?
Because my husband works as an independent worker, one of our first immediate needs was getting his landscaping supplies back so he could continue to work and support the family. Also housing is another immediate need, along with clothes and food.
The outpouring of support has been enormous… how have you utilized it or not?
The support and help has been something great to see in the community. We will rise higher than the tragedy we are currently facing. We were immediately able to get clothes and food to start with. We have seen a lot of help and donations come in but unfortunately many don’t have places to store them as they are without housing.
Marilu, you are very connected to the Latino community of Southern Oregon. What specific needs have you seen that are being addressed? What needs are not being addressed?
I’m in a group chat called Unidos Por Almeda. We come together to pass on resourceful and helpful information to each other. I have seen many volunteers working hard to meet the needs of each individual family. I feel like school has been flipped upside down. Trying to focus in school while losing a home and not living in a long-term place is hard for my children. We do not have internet where we are at, and the school said an option was to go to the school parking lot to use their wifi.
Do you have a place right now that you are living and what is the reality of this situation?
My kids are living separate from us because we are not able to be together in the space. Space is minimal and we hope to move into my mom’s house soon. The reality is we are living in a box from day-to-day.
Marilu, we had a very unusual thread of a lone bike rack sold on Craigslist that connects us. Thank you so much for taking the time to share your story and life with us today.
Thank you and I’m glad to share my story as I’m one of many who have lost or are displaced from the Almeda fires. We are not alone.
After our interview, Marilu and I had a follow-up
conversation on Facebook.
Is there an organization that is helping put together an essential needs list and getting these things put together?
What I see is a lot of organizations doing their own way of helping and people are spreading the word out to the community so they can get access to that help
There is so much… Where do you start? The bigger challenge is actually having the house to put the stuff in. These huge stockpiles of gear need to get put aside until many actually have homes again.
There is a lot and it can be overwhelming. There are U-hauls coming from Portland and out of state with goods and supplies.
There are a lot of things but where to put them?
Agree… there needs to be storage for people until housing is available. How are your kids doing with everything?
My kids are doing good. It helps to be around family but they want their stability back. A place to call home.
A family was storing things in their car while living in a hotel to only have their car be broken into and had their items stolen.
That sucks. Do you know people who are leaving the area just to get a full restart?
I have connections, and was able to get a storage unit. But there’s not much availability.
I haven’t seen anyone have to move out of state or are leaving.
This is really hard because if you have a temporary living situation you need different items vs. if you have a more permanent living space. Like a coffee maker is nice… but you can’t go hauling that all around. I wonder if people in the community could volunteer space for people to put boxes of items that they can get now and store it for them for later. It’s a really good time right now to get the gear while it is here… but you need places to put it.
Soccer starts this week and they don’t even have soccer shoes. We didn’t even think about that until we got the text. We have a soccer parent who wants to help with their shoes. That helps a lot.
If there are people who are willing to store goods long-term and not just temporarily that would be wonderful.
I think any efforts we can make to help kids resume as normal a routine as possible are important. Soccer shoes are great.
They can have them stored in storage boxes so it won’t look cluttered, so it won’t be a burden for the person who has space for it.
Agree. Someone can donate boxes, label them, and then we can ask community members to store these boxes. So you guys did save the kids’ bikes?
Yes, the kids hooked the other attachment to the bike rack or whatever you call it and we were able to take the bikes.
Their helmets got burnt. I just thought of that.
But the bikes were saved.
There is just so much to think about for you. And a lot is hard to remember until you actually need it, like the bike helmets.
I think in the back of our heads, we think if we needed to flee on foot we would have the bikes to flee faster with.
I took the laundry hamper filled with clothes that needed to be washed and my husband took a dresser drawer that had important things in it.
The kids got the laptop and their GoPro.
My oldest son worked during the summer to build a computer. I got an Amazon credit card so he can order parts ahead and pay later. He built his computer but he was left to pay the remaining amount owed on the credit card. I called Amazon to see what they could do and they gave me a five dollar credit.
What the hell?
Marilu… this gives us a lot of ideas to start with. We can put these ideas into the support forum and then share it with everyone. I know it is tough right now.
Hang in there. I so appreciate your sharing.
Glad to share.
This is super complex, but I know there are many people who care… and who can help in different ways. We just got to get it more organized so it can be more effective.
I agree. I tell people I’m taking things one day at a time. That’s all we can do.
Take good care.
I will do my very best to help!