The lasting impact of the 2020 Oregon wildfires

wildfire
Ash and debris along OR22 from property destroyed by the 2020 Labor Day weekend wildfires. Oregon DOT

https://www.flickr.com/photos/oregondot/50768775008

The summer of 2020 was a time of fire and devastation for much of the Western U.S. The combination of human-caused climate change and pervasive forestry mismanagement created the conditions for August 2020's thunderstorms to cause record-breaking wildfires across California, Oregon, and Washington (as well as additional fires all across the Western states into September). Because of the many factors—torrential winds, hot and dry terrains following drought and logging practices like clear-cutting, worsening storms due to climate change—the situation quickly grew into a disaster as individual forest fires connected and turned into megafires and scorched more than 10.2 million acres of land, destroyed more than 10,000 buildings and took at least 37 people's lives. In the midst of a global pandemic, people were forced to evacuate to crowded public spaces, as toxic chemical smoke made the air unbreathable and entire cities were advised not to open any windows or go outdoors, for weeks on end.

The Bike Brigade and Mutual Aid

Those who were not impacted by fires might not realize how long it takes to recover from them. In Southern Oregon's Rogue Valley communities of Talent and Phoenix, just north of Ashland, many remain homeless after being displaced by the fires. The area, home to about 80,000 people, remains in full swing fire recovery mode eight months after the destructive Almeda Fire incinerated entire neighborhoods in early September 2020.

The fire particularly impacted low-income communities, burning up entire mobile home parks, which accounted for three-quarters of residences lost in the Almeda Fire. Many of the people most affected by the fires are Latinx immigrants—many of whom are farmworkers—and their families, who are unable to qualify for basic safety nets like bank accounts, housing insurance and recovery loans. In addition to their homes, these people lost their life's savings, their jobs and any semblance of stability they'd had before the fire.

Dani Leonardo, a longtime Ashland resident who works with the nonprofit Post Growth Institute and volunteers with the local foundation Mi Valle Mi Hogar / My Valley My Home (which supports Latinx communities in Ashland and the surrounding region) points out that the Rogue Valley already had an affordable housing shortage prior to the fire. Following the fire, this shortage turned into crises for low-income immigrant communities.

"Affordable housing, in particular, has increasingly been hard to find here in the Valley," says Leonardo. "More than 2,000 homes burned, and so many of those homes were the only affordable housing options in the Rogue Valley. So many of the folks that have been impacted by this fire are from the Latinx community; they're working families and farmworkers. These communities that were already at a disadvantage and among the most marginalized people in this valley are now facing a really painful nightmare situation."

Laura Loescher, an Ashland resident who works as a philanthropic adviser and leadership coach, notes that while Ashland is a more affluent community, the communities that were most devastated by the Almeda Fire were more lower-income, worker-based communities living in mobile homes and other small neighborhoods.

"It was so heartbreaking that the economic divide and injustice and inequality that was already present was furthered [by the fire]," she says. "Many people were aware of that divide, and in a couple of days right after the fire, there was no sense of what the official response would be or what the [relief] agencies were doing. There was no sense that anyone was coordinating anything. And so, regular people just started jumping in and offering things."

Directly following the fire, the towns of Phoenix and Talent were inaccessible by car and people were living without access to power, water and basic supplies. Leonardo was among a group of volunteers from Ashland who organized a mutual aid effort on bicycle called the Ashland Bike Brigade directly following the fire. They loaded up their bicycles with basic supplies like water and toilet paper and rode through smoke and heat to offer aid.

"It was a unique, feel-good thing that came together in the first days after the fire," Leonardo says. "There were people who were literally just stranded out there without drinking water. A few people here in Ashland learned about this—and one person, in particular, Donnie Maclurcan, who I work with at the Post Growth Institute—and rallied a small group of us."

The first day following the fire, a small crew loaded up as much bottled water as they could carry, biked to Talent from Ashland and handed out water to anyone around, amid the still-smoldering ashes.

"It was both devastating and beautiful and I feel privileged to have been a part of that," Leonardo says.

The initial bike brigade group, on the first day following the fire, was made up of just about eight people. The next day, 100-plus people from Ashland showed up for the effort.

"It was just this epic response from the community," Leonardo says.

Over the next week or so, the Ashland Bike Brigade morphed into a larger mutual aid effort. People began to donate additional supplies—like toilet paper, hand sanitizer, face masks, food and clothing—as well as other forms of immediate relief. Many of the people who had taken an interest in the bike brigade began to help with things like coordinating volunteers, directing supplies to the correct places, and so on. The Rogue Volunteer Initiative, whose headquarters happened to be directly next door to where the bike brigade organizers were meeting, joined forces with the project. The efforts merged, and the Rogue Volunteer Initiative became a volunteer coordination and mutual aid organization hub, which at its peak encompassed 10 different distribution locations for supplies and resources around the Rogue Valley, all operated by local volunteers. The Rogue Volunteer Initiative also became a community Facebook group, which Leonardo says jumped from zero to 2,000 members in just over a week. The online group provided a space for people to match offers with needs organically.

"The positive impact and support that the volunteer initiative effort, including the Ashland Bike Brigade, was able to make is really immeasurable," Leonardo says.

After the initial community rallying response began to slow down a bit, Leonardo says, the local foundation My Valley My Home became a sort of umbrella for the efforts of the Rogue Volunteer Initiative and the bike brigade. As of December 2020, there was just one community volunteer distribution site still in operation in Phoenix, but the Rogue Volunteer Initiative Facebook group remains active. Community members continue to use the group to connect people with supplies; some people post offerings of furniture they have to give or share information about local events related to fire recovery and response.

Long-Term Recovery, Listening Circles and Earth Altars

While larger aid programs like the American Red Cross and FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) did show up to aid with fire recovery efforts in Phoenix and Talent, they only participated in the immediate emergency response, Loescher notes. After the early relief stage of recovery concluded, those groups, for the most part, left. Long-term fire recovery has fallen to the generosity of community members, via donations, home-sharing, and mutual aid organizing.

In addition to on-the-ground mutual aid volunteer work, a significant influx of money donations—including some creative fundraising initiatives—has helped to sustain the community fire relief efforts. Loescher says she was heartened by the many donation stations that cropped up around the community—including one at the local Shakespeare Festival theater, which closed to the public because of COVID-19.

"It was absolutely stunning to me [to see] the generosity of everyone wanting to help and do something [and] the level of coordinated action that began to happen among people who don't know each other," she says, noting that social media was a key tool to organize people. While she says goods donations were essential, she realized early on that the community would need an influx of money.

"There were a lot of donations pouring into nonprofits, but that wasn't going to help a lot of the people who had lost their homes, who might've been undocumented or otherwise unable to access certain agency funding—plus, agency funding is limited in what it can be used for," Loescher says.

So, being a philanthropic adviser, she reached out to her clients and connections.

"I just sent out a letter to a bunch of my clients and friends and family members and started raising money from outside of the community that I could then give directly to people as cash," she says. Because she doesn't speak Spanish, she contacted the people she knew who were connected with the local Latinx community and invited them to be the flow funders.

She called the effort the Community Resilience Flow Fund. At first, she raised money in large chunks from clients and friends, and then as word spread, money started coming in from the grassroots.

"I just started getting $50 and $100 sent to me on Venmo, [which I used to withdraw] cash," she says. She then gave the money to four volunteers she had operating as flow funders in the community. "I would just give them cash and they would [distribute] it directly to families [in need]."

Flow fund donations continued to trickle in over the months, and by January 2021 Loescher had raised and given out about $120,000 in cash directly to families, in addition to other funds she raised for relief organizations.

In addition to working as an adviser and coach, Loescher is an artist, and as a way to contend with the grief of 2020 on a personal level, with the pandemic, racial justice upheavals and the enormity of the climate crisis, she began to create Earth Altar art pieces in 2020.

Her Earth Altars pieces are "impermanent art co-created with nature," according to the website, and are made with material found in nature that is arranged in mandala-like circling patterns and shapes. They are circles of deep green fern leaves interspersed with orange trumpet flowers; spirals of bright blue chicory arranged with petals and acorns. They are eye-catching patterns of grasses, ferns, sticks, seeds and nuts and flower petals, leaves and rocks arranged in "beautiful ways." If it is something that can be found walking around outdoors in Ashland, chances are good it will appear in an Earth Altar. After she arranges the altars, she photographs them, and the effect is a striking contrast of bright, circling color against a dark backdrop.

Loescher started out creating Earth Altars, one each day, for herself as a personal practice that helped her feel grounded and connected with the planet. Eventually, she began to share her art with the community and was offered an art show where she could display the altars via wall-hanging canvases and greeting cards. After the devastation caused by the fire, she had the idea to turn them into part of the relief effort.

"[After the fire] I immediately decided that that art show was going to be a fundraiser for this flow fund," she says. All proceeds from the art show went directly into the flow fund toward fire relief, and then she donated art to families and local businesses impacted by the fires.

She also worked with local filmmaker Katie Teague to organize an event for families who had been impacted by the fire as well as those working on the front lines of disaster relief. They gathered people to create a Community Resilience Earth Altar as a healing ceremony, in a field near the location where the fire started in Ashland.

"We got a bunch of donated flowers from local farms and pulled together a group of people to create this giant altar," she says. "It had a tree of life in the center, [four smaller circles] representing the four directions [and the four triangular sections coming out of the main central circle] representing each of the communities that were impacted."

Loescher says that fire recovery in the Rogue Valley is far from over. Because there is a serious housing shortage, there are still many people without homes, people living in trailers, and families sharing space with generous neighbors or living in hotels and motels.

"One of the biggest challenges is that people are having to move out of the area, and [they are] the workforce and the backbone of the local economy," she says. "[Having to leave] has a negative impact on them personally and on their families, and then also on the local economy here… families have broken up as marriages have ended out of the stress of dealing with [the aftermath of the fire], so now there are a lot of single moms with their kids, trying to make their way through this situation. What I'm focused on right now in particular [with the flow fund] is helping these single-mom families."

Leonardo says in addition to the initial triage of the fire's damages, My Valley My Home has begun to focus on what recovery really means, into the long term.

"[My Valley My Home is] looking at how to help ensure equity and inclusion in the long term, as we rebuild," she says. "There are two catchphrases I've been thinking about in the last few months. One is 'it's a marathon and not a sprint,' and another is 'we're building the plane and flying it at the same time.' There's something unique about the challenges of such an immediate and dire crisis that also has these long-term consequences. We need to create and build mechanisms that will carry and get us all the way through the marathon, but can also respond to that immediate need."

My Valley My Home offers mentorship and support groups and held weekly listening circles and storytelling events in various places around the Rogue Valley, for individuals hit hard by the fires to share their stories with each other and be listened to.

"It's also about having a place to put their grief," Leonardo says. "One of the things I think that we are collectively aspiring toward [via My Valley My Home] is to create a model [for future aid and support] that can be replicated." And, she says in order for the response to be worthy of replication, all of the elements involved in true recovery and creating a healthy community must be present in the effort: grief-tending and well-being, mutual aid and people-care, sustainability and environmental justice.

April M. Short is an editor, journalist and documentary editor and producer. She is a writing fellow at Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute. Previously, she served as a managing editor at AlterNet as well as an award-winning senior staff writer for Santa Cruz, California's weekly newspaper. Her work has been published with the San Francisco Chronicle, In These Times, Salon and many others.

This article was produced by Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

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