Beth Zerkel had just arrived to work in Jackson County, Ore., before noon Tuesday when she started to hear about the wildfires.
Within a matter of hours, a Level 3 evacuation order — leave immediately — was issued for the area that included her home in nearby Phoenix. Her husband, Steve, was packing their car with medication and supplies for their daughter, who has special needs, and Zerkel’s mother, who uses a wheelchair, as well as the couple’s three dogs when the power went out.
Zerkel and her family decided to leave then, joining the tens of thousands of Oregonians who have evacuated their homes since the aggressive, fast-moving wildfires spread throughout the southwest portion of the state.
“I don’t have anything with me. I wasn’t able to pack,” Zerkel told The Washington Post through tears as she spoke by phone from nearby Medford on Wednesday. “Now I understand when people say they left with just the shirt off their back.”
Phoenix Mayor Chris Luz told the Oregonian that the small town and neighboring community of Talent had been “decimated” by the fires.
“Many businesses have been burned down,” Luz said early Wednesday. “Certain neighborhoods, including my own, have been burned down. There are many, many, many homes that are gone.”
Karl Koenig, the president of the Oregon State Fire Fighters Council, said in the past, the fires were fought in the forests.
“The challenge now is we’re no longer in the forest. We’re in cities, in small and large communities,” he told The Post.
Zerkel said several of her friends in Phoenix have lost their homes already, while mobile-home parks in nearby Bear Creek were “gone.”
“There are people going into parking lots and sleeping in their cars with their cats and dogs because there’s no place to go.”
Zerkel considers herself lucky: Her family is staying with her adult daughter in Medford, even as the possibility of their now-combined households evacuating to another place looms. Parts of the 80,000 person community, including Medford, Phoenix and Talent, were under an evacuation order as of late Tuesday; the Jackson County Expo Center was already full by Wednesday morning.
“I don’t know where I would go,” Zerkel said. “Even if we tried to go one direction, the roads are closed. We can’t really go anywhere.”