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The Expo becomes home for thousands of wildfire evacuees

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Norma Wright was able to grab her purse, walker and pajamas as the Almeda fire swept toward the Northridge Center Assisted Living facility in north Phoenix on Tuesday.

“I was so shaky I could hardly get out of my room. I felt like I was going to be sick,” Wright said of her stressful evacuation.

Three busses were used to evacuate about 50 residents, with no deaths, said Les Connell, owner of the Northridge Center.

The business that had been in his family for decades did not fair as well.

The 44,000-square-foot center was destroyed by the fire, displacing elderly and medically fragile residents.

The Northridge Center has contacted relatives of residents to pick them up if possible, but the rest are sheltering at The Expo in Central Point, Connell said.

The assisted living staff members continued to care for their patients, who were sheltering on cots, chairs and in wheelchairs inside a building. They are working through a state agency to find placements for the residents.

“We’re very grateful for this place,” Connell said Wednesday at The Expo.

Pushing her walker, Wright picked out a few donated items to help ease her stay inside one of The Expo’s buildings.

“I think it’s nice of them, real nice. We’re lucky to be here and have a roof over our heads,” Wright said.

Helen Funk, director of The Expo, said the facility’s buildings, camping spots and parking lots were completely filled Tuesday night by thousands of evacuees, with most sleeping outside or in their cars.

“Every parking space was full,” she said. “The Rogue Valley was being evacuated from every direction.”

Food, water and bathrooms are being provided, with updates on emergency conditions around the Rogue Valley announced every half hour. Counselors and doctors are on hand to help people suffering mental and physical health problems.

On Wednesday, many evacuees went to other areas for the day, but others remained at The Expo, sheltering in the buildings, sitting in shady areas outside and visiting with others.

“There is an upside to all this,” Funk said. “People are meeting people in their communities that they’ve never met before, even though they’ve lived around each other. They’re sharing cellphone chargers, food, supplies, making each other laugh and playing games. They’re going to rise up together when they go back to their communities.”

On Wednesday, fire officials repeatedly warned evacuees not to try and enter the Talent and Phoenix areas to check on the status of their homes.

“Crews are actively working in the Talent/Phoenix area. Attempts to enter are hindering emergency efforts and blocking roadways, including I-5. There are downed utility lines and poles and other fire debris. Please stay away until such time it’s clear,” Jackson County Sheriff’s Office Captain Tim Snaith said Wednesday afternoon.

The damage to Phoenix was widespread, said city of Phoenix Manager Eric Swanson. Most people wanted to know if their specific homes had been spared, but he had few details about exact addresses Wednesday.

Rather than counting destroyed buildings, firefighters have been focused on stopping the Almeda fire as it runs and spots through Ashland, Talent, Phoenix, Medford and Central Point.

“The damage to Phoenix is definitely devastating,” Swanson said. “There’s been a lot of damage to commercial buildings, businesses and residential areas. It’s all over the place.”

Jairo Gomez is a Phoenix resident who barely escaped with his life.

Other family members, including his three young children, left their home about 10 minutes before he did as he stayed behind to grab more things.

“I could see ashes fall from the sky. My neighbor came over and said, ‘Your patio is on fire,’” Gomez said.

Attempts to douse the fire with a garden hose failed. Gomez decided to flee, but he said trees along his driveway had gone up like giant candles and people in the area were screaming. He tried multiple street routes to escape and finally made it out.

“In less than a minute, everything was gone,” Gomez said. “Many, many families lost everything last night.”

His family spent Tuesday night in a Grants Pass parking lot after being unable to find a vacant hotel room. They went to The Expo on Wednesday, where they were provided with blankets and other supplies.

Adam Gomez, a 10-year-old Phoenix Elementary School student, said he was sad that his home burned down.

“That’s where I grew up,” he said. “It’s turned into ashes. My dad almost died.”

Debbi Rappaport of Talent was sitting Wednesday under the shade of a tree with her poodle Autumn. She was one of the lucky ones at The Expo.

“This is an interesting experience to be in,” she said. “Until a few hours ago, I didn’t know if my home was still standing. I found out my house is still there and I’m feeling hopeful.”

Rappaport said she had a bad feeling about the fire that started Tuesday morning in Ashland. She saw smoke outside, packed her car early and evacuated to Dark Hollow Road in the south Medford area.

But as the fire continued to burn through towns north of Ashland, a Jackson County Sheriff’s Office employee came through with a bullhorn, warning people to leave the Dark Hollow Road area immediately — prompting her second evacuation.

Mary Severson, who lives in a Phoenix mobile home park, didn’t know Wednesday whether she still had a home. She evacuated Tuesday afternoon after firefighters with a bullhorn and a neighbor warned her to flee. She drove to The Expo.

“All of that area where I live, we don’t know if it’s there or not. We can’t get in to see if it’s still there,” Severson said.

Without family living in the area to help, she said she expected to be at The Expo for at least a few days.

Her only possessions were the glasses, dress and sandals she had on, plus her car.

“I now have two blankets that they’ve given me,” Severson said.

She said she’s grateful to everyone who is providing help at The Expo.

“I think they’re doing everything they can on quick notice. They’re working hard and doing the best they can,” Severson said.

People were stopping by The Expo throughout the day to drop off supplies.

Blankets, sleeping bags, socks, pillows and phone chargers and cords are needed at The Expo to help the evacuees, said Mark Pedersen, chair of Rogue Valley Community Organizations Active in Disaster.

“If people do have donations, please do come and drop them off,” said Dave Dotterer, another member of the disaster aid coalition.

Volunteers who would like to help through the group can visit roguevalley.recovers.org.

Cots were provided for the most vulnerable people, including the medically fragile and senior citizens.

Dozens of large animals were being housed temporarily at The Expo, then trucked to foster farms and ranches for care.

Jackson County Animals Services, with help from Friends of the Animal Shelter, was caring for dogs and cats evacuated from the animal shelter between Talent and Phoenix, as well as small pets that couldn’t go with their owners.

“Some people have lost their homes and they’re trying to figure out where they’re going,” said Eliza Kauder, a volunteer with Friends of the Animal Shelter who was helping to take care of displaced pets.

Kauder said she heard there may be some external damage to the shelter building and that the dog play yards there had burned.

To help pets at The Expo, people can drop off donations of large towels, pee pads, blankets, disposable litter boxes, cat litter and large metal food and water bowls.

Throughout the day at The Expo, people were finding ways to help others. They used jumper cables to jump start a vehicle with a dead battery, helped frail people use the bathroom, served food and drinks and walked displaced pets.

Breanna Koepke, whose downtown Medford home was not burned in the Almeda fire, came to The Expo on Wednesday to become a temporary foster parent for a displaced dog. She said she’s fostered animals through Friends of the Animal Shelter in the past and loved the experience.

“We’re just blessed to have a stable home and everyone in our family is safe,” Koepke said. “We want to help.”

Rogue Credit Union has set up a Southern Oregon Fire Relief fund.

Donors can contribute to the fund at any Rogue Credit Union branch, by calling any Rogue Credit Union branch, or online at roguecu.org/community/donate.

The United Way of Jackson County also launched a Fire Fund Wednesday that will be geared toward longer-term recovery for families impacted by the fire. The United Way will use an application process to cover direct expenses related to families’ losses.

To donate to the United Way fund, see unitedwayofjacksoncounty.org/give and choose “United Way Fire Fund,” mail a check to United Way, 60 Hawthorne St., Medford, OR 97504 or make a deposit at any First Interstate Bank to the United Way Fire Fund, account number 1000471001 and routing number 092901683.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.

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Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune A man surveys what was once his home on North Rose Street in Phoenix. The neighborhood was leveled.