Last September in late morning, The Almeda Fire ignited in a grassy field on the north edge of Ashland. The winds were fierce and the fire's first stop, just down the hill, was Ashland Pond, a riparian wildlife area, abutting The Bear Creek Greenway. We'd had a rare summer, a little cooler than usual with little to no smoke drifting into the valley. We thought we were coasting on the home stretch towards a clear autumn, having somehow been spared during the hell of pandemic, from a typical smoke-filled summer. For the past decade wildfires have tragically impacted our valley's emotional, mental, physical, environmental and economic health. The smoke season has become longer each year, causing many to flee the area. Had our whole town not been shut down by Covid, the 2020 season, would have been the first in years where The Oregon Shakespeare Festival would have made it all the way through August with no closures, causing tourists and locals to flee the toxic smoke. July into September have become trauma-inducing months as we hold our breath and pray for the delay of wildfire season and for the winds to blow the smoke out of The Rogue Valley.
On Tuesday morning, September 8th, I was heading home from Eugene, a 3-hour drive to the north. I had finished the last of my food for breakfast; left my friends and timed my journey perfectly to arrive home to Ashland in time for lunch. When I stopped at a rest area north of Grants Pass, about 45 minutes north of Ashland, my phone was filled with notifications. Friends who knew I was on the road, texted and called to let me know there was a fire raging between Ashland and 12 miles to the north in Medford and that the Interstate and Old Highway 99 into Ashland were closed. There was no way to get into Ashland.
I got back on I-5 and headed south, hoping the freeway would re-open. Just before Grants Pass, traffic came to a halt about noon. We creeped and stopped for hours. A friend in Ashland sent me updates of road closures in Medford. At 4:pm, three hours past my expected arrival home, I-5 was barricaded at Central Point, just north of Medford. Finally, we were getting off the freeway., but at the exit, the highway patrol directed traffic away from Medford, toward a fire burning in White City. Most roads leading south were closed, but I found a back-road into Medford along with closed roads at every turn. I needed food and called The Medford Food Co-op and Trader Joe's, having heard businesses were closing and learned they both were closing soon.
Twenty minutes later, just before they closed, I walked out of Trader Joe's with gallons of water and enough food to last through the morning. A friend called and told me to get to a large parking lot to avoid burning up in the fire. I was sitting in my car, numb, in Trader Joe's parking lot, trying to remain calm. I called my parents retirement community in South Medford to check on them an see if I could seek refuge there even though due to Covid regulations, I hadn't been allowed into their building in all of 2020. Their front desk told me no entrance as they were waiting to hear if they were evacuating since the fire was headed their way. I immediately called my parents, who are in their 90's, to check on them. My mother, answered the phone and said they were sitting on the balcony. I asked, "What do you see?" and she said, "There is a huge black cloud of smoke." I asked, "Where?" and she responded, "Right below us." Trying to keep myself together, I told my parents to get inside; close the door; pack a bag of essentials and call me if they are evacuated. Meanwhile, navigating clogged streets and closed roads, I headed over to some close friends of my parents who lived a mile north of my parent's. They welcomed me and even with The Covid situation were happy to take me in.
I arrived at Flo and Shel's at 6:00 pm at the same time as their friend, Andy, who had to evacuate her home in Talent, 9 miles to the south. Flo, generously made up beds for her two guests and I put some food together for myself as she, Shel and Andy, sat down to eat. I had barely begun eating when my stress hormones kicked into high gear once again. As I glanced out the living room window, I saw a massive black cloud of smoke approaching from the south. I suggested to Flo and Shel that I help them pack their car to be ready to evacuate if needed and we were on it. In the background, I heard a news report describing thousands of people being evacuated to The Jackson County Expo Center. There was no way I wanted to end up there during a pandemic. I also tried calling my parents and couldn't reach them. I was trusting their retirement community would take care of them.
My friend Jonnie, who earlier was mapping my driving based on road closures, continued to stay in touch, sending updates on road and fire conditions. As the black cloud headed our way, I received a text from my daughter in Hong Kong, checking-in after seeing a Facebook Post about the fire. I message her that I was ok and would update her later. I learned that day that texting during a natural disaster greatly raises stress levels. Just before 9 pm, Jonnie messaged that "supposedly", I-5 to Ashland had opened. I decided I needed to make a run for it and get home, 12 miles to the south, and I let Flo and Shel know I was going to attempt to get home. Since the winds were blowing north, I encouraged them to head south to Ashland if they needed to evacuate.
"I was still driving though it felt like someone else was at the wheel. Two miles to the south, the orange firestorm had transformed into smaller white flames covering everything west of I-5. I had reached the small town of Talent, where my parents formerly resided for years. I could see their old neighborhood of Oak Valley, just west of the freeway. The whole development was burning. I kept driving and crying; making my way home."
It was a mile to the freeway entrance and by now quite dark. Just before the entrance, billowing across Barnett Road, came the massive black plume of smoke. Once surrounded by the smoke, my headlights created an eerie scene. I inched my way to the freeway with my headlamps illuminating the lane lines. Gratefully, within minutes, I cleared the smoke and was safely on the freeway with no police barriers in sight. I-5 was unusually dark with just a handful of other cars. Though just south of Medford, it suddenly became very bright. On my right, the sky was fully illuminated above the small town of Phoenix. Instantly I saw a raging orange-firestorm engulfing the whole town. I slowed down, having never seen anything like it before and was suddenly wailing with tears streaming down my face. Though I had seen nothing like it in this lifetime, the flames triggered a deep reaction in my body, that I can only describe as familiar. I felt terror. Though I was still driving, it felt like someone else was at the wheel. Two miles to the south, the orange firestorm had transformed into smaller white flames covering everything west of I-5. I had reached the small town of Talent, where my parents had resided for years. I could see their old neighborhood of Oak Valley, just west of the freeway. The whole development was burning. I kept driving and crying; making my way home.
Just before 10:00 pm, I drove into Ashland. The power was out at the exit. In the darkness I recognized several burned structures. The Burger King, formerly near the exit was smoldering rubble. The smell of toxic smoke and fire was nauseating. I had entered a disaster area. Due to the powerful winds heading north along Bear Creek, Ashland was spared from the worst of the fire, though several homes and structures burned down. The worst of the destruction hit The Talent and Phoenix business districts and residential neighborhoods, where about 2800 structures burned.
Thirteen hours after leaving Eugene, I arrived home, a half mile from where the fire began that morning. I was exhausted and all I wanted to do was sleep, but immediately began packing my car in case the winds shifted and Ashland had to evacuate. The town was still under a Level 1 evacuation order. I was packed by midnight when I finally heard from my father. He said they had been evacuated to another retirement home by way of a 2 hour traffic jam and each had a chair for the night. Soon after, I heard from Flo that their trio evacuated to a friend's home in Ashland. And, finally, I contacted both my adult kids to inform them I was safe. I was awake most of the night with my phone on, hyper vigilant, listening in case an evacuation text came.
In the morning, still shaky from the previous day, I walked a half mile, down the hill to Ashland Pond, located just blocks from where the fire began on Almeda Drive. The pond was a special place for many Ashlander's. It was a unique city park, being the town's only riparian preserve. The lands along the connected waterways of Ashland Creek, Bear Creek and Emigrant Creek were home for centuries to The Shasta and Takelma People. The pond was home to a rich web of water fowl, birds, mammals, insects and reptiles, trees and plant species. It was a hunting ground for raptors such as, hawks, osprey and Bald Eagles. Other pond residents and visitors included, owls, egrets, herons, quail, ducks, Canadian Geese, loons, squirrels, raccoons, coyotes, foxes, frogs, turtles, snakes, fish, mosquitoes, bees, butterflies, dragonflies and numerous species of small song birds and other wild beings. In the spring, River Otter's took up temporary residence at the pond and I would visit each day, hoping for a glimpse of the large family playing and sleeping in pairs on the water.
Last spring, while sitting on a rock which jutted out of the water next to shore, I witnessed a Mallard mating ritual. Two males violently fought over a female. I had never seen anything like it. The female was violently dragged under water before her mate fought off the aggressive male, with a wild flapping of wings; loud quacking and what looked like, "beak punching" as he chased the other male from the pond. The male who had tried to "abduckt" the female, escaped and flew fast and high into the sky. Immediately, the Mallard couple, now safe, swam in tandem toward the reeds on the opposite side of the pond. As the ducks calmed down, I too relaxed following the wild scuffle. It turned out we all let down our guard prematurely.
"Often, what we humans observe in nature is just on the surface what looks to be a peaceful day in the wild, when actually, nature can be quite violent. How can it not be when eagles, ducks, fish, insects, foxes, raccoons, song birds and coyotes share the same home and must eat to survive?"
Often, what we humans observe in nature is just on the surface what looks to be a peaceful day in the wild, when actually, nature can be quite violent. How can it not be when eagles, ducks, fish, insects, foxes, raccoons, song birds and coyotes share the same home and must eat to survive? I have found with the regular practice of "sitspot", once I'm quietly in place and about 20 minutes has passed, I begin to see what may typically happen when we humans are absent. After sitting quietly in the same place over time, the wild creatures either no longer notice a human's presence or become familiar with us being a part of the place.
As I sat on my rock quietly watching, the pugnacious Mallard returned, coming in fast from above like a small, feathered torpedo straight on target. He arrived dead-center above the pond and in an instant took a vertical dive toward the two "sitting ducks" on the water. The duck-torpedo hit the other male fiercely as he skidded in on landing, the impact caused the stunned male on the water to be thrown several feet from the female, at which point, the determined male again pulled the flapping and quacking female beneath the water. The Mallard who was blasted out of the water, flew back, skidding in for another rescue. This time the persistent male flew off not returning during the remainder of my sitspot. I was grateful for the opportunity to witness these wild lives.
There are many surprises to be found in nature when you sit quietly, make yourself invisible and simply observe. Once the ducks calmed down, I gazed into the blue-green water and noticed several schools of small silver fish when a large turtle suddenly surface next to me. Soon, a Blue Heron quietly landed on the large perch in the middle of the pond, built just for these residents. Once settled in at my pond sitspot, I often stayed for an hour or two. It was difficult to leave this magic portal into the wild stories playing out at the pond.
I was holding these memories when I walked to the pond the morning after the fire. As I stepped around barriers blocking the entrance, I felt a pressing need to see what the fire had done to this pristine land; home to thousands of nature beings. All the lush green underbrush and dense thickets of blackberries were gone; vaporized with no trace of ever having been there. Almost every tree had burned and was either blown to the ground or stood blackened; some still smoldering. A fire crew spread out in the area was quenching stubborn pockets of fire, deep in the ground. The pond was a stark, dark pool with no sign of its former peripheral dense layer upon layer of green that offered shelter and private dwellings to the local critters. The fire burned so hot that barely anything survived the fury. The pond, formerly teeming with life had been decimated in minutes. There were a few dazed looking ducks on the water. The ground under my feet was so hot and smoldering in places that even through my heavy boots I felt the intense heat. I quickly left after a strong gust of wind blew down one of the burned trees just in front of me.
For some time after the fire, due to high winds; trees blowing down and smoke levels over 500 aqi, I stayed away from the pond. Just walking through briefly that morning, triggered more trauma as I felt the deep loss suffered by the wild beings of this land as well as the pain 3 miles down the road where thousands of Talent and Phoenix residents had lost everything to the fire. I went home and filled my car with clothes, food and household goods to donate and help where I could.
In early October, with our valley still permeated with toxic wildfire smoke from Northern California, I moved across town to a tiny place of my own. There, in my solitude, I spent autumn and the deep dark of winter processing much buried trauma that was triggered by the fire devastation of early September. By January, I finally made my way back to Ashland Pond. The life there was rising from its deep winter sleep and moving to recover from the fire. There were gentle signs of new plant life and animal life everywhere. I could feel how both The More than Human World and we humans are on a parallel journey of grasping to life, healing and restoration. I slowly meandered around the pond perimeter, called there by the land; the stark loss and profound beauty of a slate wiped almost clean to begin anew. The pond was stunning in its bare state of regeneration and vulnerability. Walking that land has been and is a lesson for me in the healing balm of love, nature and the power of hope and potential when one is certain that everything is lost.
Each day every being on this planet awakens to a new world. The sacred manuscript of nature continues to be my guide and teacher; offering beauty, compassion, inspiration, strength, wisdom, love, and divine intelligence. Navigating through devastation, painful loss and transformation is what brings us the resilience that leads to wholeness. We all are nature.
If you would like make a donation to help survivors of The Almeda Fire, here is a very helpful link and way to donate to the ongoing recovery process in rebuilding our valley.