How Disaster Led to Sharing and Rebuilding focuses on how the Almeda Drive Fire forever changed the small towns in Southern Oregon’s Rogue Valley and the Harry & David family. Through sharing resources and interviews with residents and first responders, we’re dedicated to helping those affected by the wildfire that destroyed over 2,000 homes in our local community.
“Imagine walking out of your house with just what you’re wearing, and maybe a cell phone. And now you have to restart everything.” That’s the stark reality for the thousands of people who lost everything in the Almeda Drive Fire, as explained by Ashley Hughes, the Program Director at the Teresa McCormick Center, a nonprofit resource center in Medford, Oregon.
The Sept. 8, 2020 fire destroyed over 2,400 homes in Southern Oregon’s Rogue Valley. The smoke may have settled, but the rebuilding process—both emotionally and physically—is just beginning. “The residents can’t go back to their house and sleep,” Ashley says. “They have to start from scratch with what they were wearing. Some didn’t have insurance coverage. The need is so big for so many.”
Those needs are being met in part by the Teresa McCormick Center. Founded by Harry & David employee Teresa McCormick in 2005 and renamed for her after she died of a brain aneurism in 2007, the center has been assisting the Medford region since 2009. Among its many services, it offers a food pantry, clothes donations, free tax preparation, and refurbished bicycles.
The First Steps to Rebuilding
As the harsh reality of the fire’s devastation began to set in the next day, the center’s two employees—Ashley and Executive Director Amy Belkin—and its 40 volunteers wanted to hit the ground running. But, there were a lot of logistical questions. “How do we get in a vast amount of clothing?” Amy recalled. “How do we get people housed? How do we help navigate the systems with the community to see who pays for what in an emergency?”
“In a situation like this, no one is prepared, no one knows what to do, where to go,” she adds. “The services aren’t sitting there waiting to swing into motion if there’s a disaster. People were desperate.”
The center immediately started asking people to donate gift cards to Walmart, Fred Meyer, and other grocery stores and retailers to replace basic items. People needed food, prescriptions, diapers, slippers, and even nail files that, as Amy points out, “you don’t realize is gone until you reach for it.”
Amy notes that people lost much more than material items. They lost family photos, ashes of loved ones on their mantle, and other irreplaceable reminders of their lives. “They lost every piece of their life they knew,” she says.
We knew Harry & David could help too. The day after the fire, our CEO Steve Lightman set up a capital fund. Monetary donations started coming in from all over the country and world, even as far away as China. Of the $1 million goal, $470,000 has been raised so far. We’ve also received numerous grants. All this money is going to the Teresa McCormick Center, which is distributing the funds so people can stabilize their lives and figure out where they will be living.
“People’s needs are constantly changing,” Ashley says. “Now, the season has changed, so how do they get warmer clothes and blankets? They’re wondering how they make a hotel work for the next six months. Some people are unsure what they really need. Some put money toward a car, which was the next best home for some.”
Once word spread of what was needed, physical donations started pouring in, too. Companies such as Columbia Sportswear, Hanes, Talbots, Skechers, and Cariloha Bamboo donated clothing, shoes, and bedding. Portland television station KGW gave away $5,000 in new toys during the holidays.
Support System in Place
Medford and the surrounding towns of Phoenix, Talent, and Ashland not only came together to share resources, but also lend ears. Residents listened to each other’s stories and offered support as they tried to recover from the fire. When asked about the general sentiment in the community, Ashley says there’s a lot of heartbreak and heartache.
“People go through a lot of ups and down, people saying, ‘I’ll be OK,’ then, ‘Oh my gosh, everything is just not working out.’”
Amy adds: “The level of that continues to shake us and stop us in our tracks as we go forward and talk to people because this is not a disaster that you see and move on again. It will take years to rebuild. People’s lives were shattered.”
But the region’s residents are resilient. “This whole area has come together for these people and really backed them up. It’s going to be a constant need, and we’re going to have to carry these people emotionally to make sure they’ll be ok,” Ashley says.
Working Toward the Future
There’s also a lot of fear and a lot of sadness. “This summer will be the first summer after the fire, and it’ll be another tragic time for these people and for all of us,” she says. “Is this going to happen again? What do we do to prepare ourselves? It’s a very traumatic incident. Loved ones were lost, pets were lost. There’s also a lot of strength and courage in these people.”
Residents will have to be patient, too. Over the past four-plus months, there have been groups and committees discussing how the rebuilding should happen, but, as Amy points out, “We still don’t know.”
“It’s going to takes years. Some areas have been cleared off; architecture plans are being submitted. Some people who had homes will be able to rebuild in the next few months,” she says. “There are so many areas that have not yet been touched by the cleanup. It’s very helter-skelter.”
No matter how long the rebuild will take, residents are there for each other, Amy says. “Everyone is a lot more aware that people are suffering, and it really takes all of us in order to hold that community and rebuild the community.”
To support victims of the Almeda Fire, you can donate to the Teresa McCormick Center. They’re committed to continuing to assist and provide resources for all those affected by the wildfires as the community works to recover and rebuild.