By Chance Dini, Hannah O’Reilly and Natalie Holmes
On the morning of September 9th, 2020, a grass fire in Oregon’s Rogue Valley was fueled by strong winds and soon turned catastrophic, tearing through the towns of Phoenix and Talent, destroying over 2300 residences. Often when natural disasters occur, it is the vulnerable and marginalized who suffer most. In the face of this kind of devastation, locals in Rogue Valley, Oregon mobilized to coordinate both immediate & long-term security for those most affected by the wildfire, many of whom were elderly and low-income and migrant workers living in mobile home parks. Through this effort, connections between those able to give and those in need were made, fostering a sense of community partnership in the process.
The way the people of Ashland assembled to help those affected by the fire shows the importance of a community which puts partnership values, solidarity and care at its heart. When asked to step up and help, those with resources – even limited ones – gave what they could, creating chains of connection based on sharing rather than hoarding during a time of need. There was an outpouring of love and support, demonstrating the true power of community to give back.
While the fires continued to burn, members of the local community began to take stock of the damage. The devastation was overwhelming. In the words of volunteer firefighter, Julie Grable, “You think, ‘It won’t happen here’. You’ve seen the footage of Paradise, or Santa Rosa, or Mendocino, and you think, ‘Oh, those poor people.’”
Grable’s experience is common for many faced with this type of devastation for the first time. When we see disaster happening in our world online, in print, or on television, a sense of ‘otherness’ can make these events seem far removed from our lives and even reality. It’s during these moments we need to remember that the people affected by these events have lives, struggles and agency themselves. Challenging that disconnect is vital in creating communities based on trust and partnership.
The fire happened so fast. For many there was undoubtedly the temptation to shut down and succumb to the shock, to hoard resources and to distance themselves from those suffering the worst losses. However, members of the community in neighboring Ashland chose to rise to the occasion, forming a group overnight completely dedicated to figuring out how to help.
The desire to care for others, to offer help, to share and to empathize, are intrinsic and natural to humankind. When it is embraced, our potential is limitless.
Following a reconnaissance bike ride through the ashen remains of Talent, Post Growth Institute (PGI) co-founder Donnie Maclurcan, who works to revitalize communities by matching offers and needs, posted on a local Facebook group. He put a call out for volunteers to bike in essentials to people in Talent who were unable to leave their homes. The water and power supplies were off and almost all vehicle access was blocked, leaving vulnerable residents stranded.
With that call-out, the Ashland Bike Brigade was formed and volunteers gathered food and water to deliver to those in need. That day, eight cyclists delivered over 50 gallons of water to stranded residents in Talent. The crew also distributed food and took photos of properties for people who evacuated and did not know the fate of their home.
Less than 24 hours later, the Bike Brigade’s numbers had swollen to more than 100 people, including some who had lost their own homes. Volunteers were out delivering water, food, information and support to people who had remained in or returned to fire-ravaged Talent.
Reporting on the day, Donnie wrote:
“Like yesterday, we encountered people without any electricity, water, phone, Internet or means to leave town. Often elderly, and/or with disability, and without friends/family able to assist. Some people said we were the first people they’d seen in days. Braving toxic smoke conditions, the group reached an estimated 95 percent of the 2,000 homes that remained standing and, thanks to a group of volunteers on dirt bikes, were able to get to people in the most remote and hard-to-access areas”.
The following day, after an overwhelming response to calls for water donations, the Ashland Bike Brigade was ready to continue their work. However, the smoke had reached hazardous levels at this point and local authorities were restricting access to neighboring towns.
Instead of letting the danger stop their important work, the team found a way to continue delivering integral resources to their community members in need. Two local men, Lebeau Potgieter and Derek Sherrell, managed to negotiate truck access and, with the help of many volunteers, the group was able to deliver 300 gallons of water to the Rogue Action Center in Talent, a makeshift hub set up after the organization’s HQ in neighboring Phoenix burned down. Soon after, resident Sarah Shaw secured a generator, which was swiftly trucked in.
Meanwhile, the volunteer database swelled, the group’s text alert system was established, and their efforts made the national news. Each day brought more momentum, more mobilization, and more impact showcasing how partnership systems create momentum.
On September 14th, another 300 gallons of water were delivered, and a local woman offered to donate an entire Shasta water truck to assist in bringing the water to those in need. Water donations continued to pour in, including a massive donation from local bakery, Mix Bakeshop, and from all over the world via the newly created online wishlist, Alameda Fire Relief Support for Oregon. Furthermore, two powerful generators were secured and delivered to Jackson County Fire District #5, who were still without electricity.
A team of volunteers started databasing and coordinating volunteer requests for the Ashland Bike Brigade, as well as mapping the inventory of needs across the entire Valley’s distribution centers. The first call from the database was for volunteers to run security shifts at a local Mexican restaurant that was coordinating monetary donations, between midnight and 6am that night, in toxic smoke. Incredibly, all the shifts were filled in 20 minutes.
Local handyman John Palombo and Atlas Newman of the Rogue Volunteer Initiative assembled over 170 builders to explore rebuilding residences, while Donnie and Lebeau pulled together 50 partners (including state senators, donors, property owners, town planners, town mayors, disaster relief specialists, equity and diversity workers, educators and builders) for a hybrid Zoom and in-person meeting to explore long-term approaches for creating equitable, sustainable, community- and family-owned housing using refurbished RV’s, buses, shipping containers, and tiny houses. “The buy-in was incredible,” said Donnie. “I’ve never seen such an amazing pledge of resources.”
On September 14th, the electricity came back on in Talent. The brigade matching database and alert system were fully functional, and thanks to the hard work of PGI member Dani Leonardo and land stewardship educator Jeanine Moy, people’s offers and needs were being matched more efficiently than ever. A local named Tyler gave two bikes to a family whose cars had been destroyed by fire — among numerous other acts of generosity.
Local city councilor Julie Akins reignited her efforts to convert driveable, barely used buses into tiny homes. Offers of land, labor and capital poured in for the Rogue Valley Home and Shelter Relief project, including fiscal sponsorship by the MRG Foundation. Then Tom Llewellyn from Shareable called to say that he’d managed to secure 10,000 Kn95 masks for donation.
When an individual or group is in need, most of the time the resources to support that person or solve that problem already exist within that very community – we just need to work together, pool resources and provide a platform for people to reach out to those who need it most. When communities mobilize in this way, it reminds us that there need not be barriers to alleviating people’s basic needs.
The desire to care for others, to offer help, to share and to empathize, are intrinsic and natural to humankind. We see it in such sharp relief during trying times like these, but working together like this possible in all circumstances. When it is embraced, our potential is limitless.
That same evening that electricity returned to Talent, Donnie wrote:
“Oftentimes I find myself surrounded by the kind of people that remind me that anything’s possible. Just by the very nature of their vision and can-do attitude. Tonight was one of those times. I’ve never felt so exhausted, yet I’ve never felt so hopeful that, in the wake of the devastation of the #Alamedafire, we can provide shelter in the near-term, and rebuild permanent housing in the long-term, that is safe, sustainable, and family- and community-owned, all through an equity-centered process.
And then there is so much that is invisible, and will remain invisible. The stories of hope, tragedy, perseverance, and the mundane that will never be told, during this time, or otherwise. The stories of the caregivers, the educators, the single parents, the undocumented migrants, the BIPOC community leaders, the behind-the-scene weavers, the social media managers, the city administrators, the social workers, the assessors, and so many more.
These stories may not be told, but they are part of the mythic fabric that binds us. They exist in a space we can all reach merely by closing our eyes, connecting with our hearts, and remembering that we are all one”.