“The fire,” the neighbor said. “It’s in your yard.”
Flames rose everywhere. Burning ash and debris fell from above. “Like rocks,” Gomez said. The barn, the trees, the trailer park in front of him were all ablaze. He heard screaming from the elderly neighbors across the street. Gomez and his neighbor pulled out a hose, hoping the water might do something, anything, to help.
“It was big, so big,” he said. “In less than five minutes, everything was gone.”
Everything was gone in communities like his across this town in the Rogue Valley, just south of Medford, Ore. In Phoenix, a town of about 4,500 people, nearly 1,000 housing units have been destroyed by the wildfire raging here, many of them in mobile home and RV parks, according to the town’s mayor, Chris Luz. As many as 50 businesses have been lost, including the town’s only bank. Among them were the stores at the heart of the town’s economy.
Luz said authorities drove through the town with megaphones telling people to leave and sent as many alerts as possible via the local news media. But it all happened within a two- to three-hour period, which for an evacuation is barely enough: “It came in fast, really fast,” he said.
A beloved Mexican restaurant, La Tapatia. The Puck’s Donuts shop. The barbershop. All gone. The fire station dormitory also was destroyed. And in the neighboring town of Talent, almost all of the mobile home parks have been damaged or laid to waste, including two parks for residents over the age of 55.
There was no power in Phoenix, and city officials were working on starting up a generator to run City Hall and the Police Station on Thursday afternoon.
“Our tax base is going to be diminished,” said Luz, who stayed behind as his city was in flames, helping a bucket brigade of sheriff’s deputies put out a house on fire in his neighborhood. “We’re not going to survive without help.”
Across the state of Oregon, wildfires in this dry and hot summer have burned more than 900,000 acres, Gov. Kate Brown (D) said in a news conference Thursday afternoon. The governor said there were fire-related fatalities, but she did not say how many. Tens of thousands of Oregonians have been evacuated from their homes, she said.
“In the last 10 years, we see an average of 500,000 acres burned in an entire year,” Brown said. “We’ve seen that nearly double in the past three days. We have never seen this amount of uncontained fire across our state.”
As the fire closed in around him on Tuesday, Gomez managed to find an escape path through the flames, and eventually drove to a store parking lot, where he met a caravan of extended relatives — sisters, nephews, nieces, before spending the night in their cars in a hotel parking lot.
And on Thursday morning, he walked more than a half-hour through closed-off streets to sift through what remained of the home where he and his wife raised all three of their children. Ashes.
He walked up what was left of the ramp he had built for his elderly in-laws, who both lived with them. He saw the singed sunflowers he had planted for his wife, whose favorite color is yellow, and the burned peach tree and cherry trees he had planted for each of his two oldest children when they were born. He dug through the debris and found a metal bracelet with his name on it, which he has kept with him since he came to the United States from Oaxaca, Mexico, more than 16 years ago.
He dug in the debris and, one by one, picked up coins from the remains of a piggy bank belonging to his 10-year-old son, who has been crying every night. He filled a bucket with the coins, hoping to bring them back for him.
“I’m an immigrant, I came here with nothing to this country. I know what it’s like to have nothing and start over,” Gomez said. “But they don’t. That’s what hurts the most.”
Gomez is part of a large Latino community here in Phoenix, where many of his extended relatives from Mexico also live. Nearly half of the Phoenix-Talent School District is Hispanic, said Lucy Brossard, a bilingual executive assistant with the school district who walked through the destroyed mobile home parks trying to help connect with families in the community.
Many Latino migrants settled in the Rogue Valley in the early 1990s to work in the nearby pear and peach orchards, Brossard said. They are the backbone of the workforce in the area’s restaurants, food processing plants and wineries. And many of them have settled in multigenerational homes in trailer parks, especially since the economic crisis of 2008.
Just down the road from Gomez, his sister, Beatriz Gomez, 41, said the majority of people in her mobile home park were Latino. The entire community was destroyed, and in the two days since, she and her relatives and friends have questioned why it had to happen to them.
“They wiped out the poor,” she said. “They wiped out the Mexicans.”
It was her birthday on Tuesday when Beatriz Gomez fled her home with her husband and four children. They just had time to grab shoes and food for themselves and for their dog, Tyson, thinking they would be able to return in a day or two. Her oldest son Bryan, a 17-year-old who was supposed to be the drum major in his school marching band this year, left all of his instruments behind: a flute, guitar, trumpet and saxophone. Her 12-year-old daughter, Kimberly, left her favorite stuffed animals and arts supplies.
As they drove away, they saw flames on both sides of the highway, and her 4-year-old daughter told her older siblings to look away from the fire. “Close your eyes,” she said, hoping that if they were less afraid, she would be, too.
The family already was struggling before this. Beatriz Gomez and her husband, who both work at Red Lobster, had seen their hours and shifts reduced due to the coronavirus pandemic. To help cut costs, they had canceled the insurance on their mobile home, where they have lived for more than a decade.
The mother’s eyes filled with tears as she surveyed the mangled metal and ash that was there now.
In his own yard, Jairo Gomez saw that all but one of his eight chickens had somehow survived the blaze. He fed them tomatoes and buried the one that had perished. He spotted his children’s bicycles — now a pile of twisted, burned metal. He pointed out the mattress where his in-laws had slept, in an extra room he had built for them.
But on the side of his home, a tarp still stood, covering chairs that were still somehow arranged as Gomez had left them. The extended family had gathered here every night since Saturday, as part of a novenario, Gomez said, a time of nine days of mourning and prayer after the death of a loved one.
His mother-in-law had died on Saturday, after suffering complications from a stroke. Dozens of family members had come to this place nightly to light candles and pray. Now almost all of them had lost everything.
“The entire family, from the head to the feet, all of them lost their homes,” Gomez said.
But the tarp still stood, and beneath it, a small table had managed to protect one of the few belongings that survived the fire — a framed painting of Jesus.
So after he finished feeding the chickens and gathering the coins for his son, Gomez tucked the frame under his arm.
He hoped to bring it to another night of prayer Thursday, in one of the few family homes that was spared. He stepped over the downed power lines and smoldering ash, walking out of what was left of his neighborhood.