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'Fire has always been my biggest phobia': Houks had to escape fast-moving Almeda fire

Jason and Vanessa Houk found themselves homeless after the Almeda fire destroyed all of their belongings when it swept through the Bear Creek Mobile Home Park on the north end of Ashland.

The Houks have spent the better part of the past decade helping the homeless community. Despite the family’s devastation, they are still worried about their homeless friends and what the destruction will do to the already minimal amount of affordable housing in the Rogue Valley.

Vanessa Houk described the morning of the fire as a normal Tuesday aside from the high winds and nagging knowledge of extreme fire danger that day. Jason took the family car and went to the KSKQ radio station to host his “We the People” segment.

Their youngest daughter, Grace, started her first day of high school online — just your average 2020 day.

The Houk’s received a Nixle alert from the city after the fire started in Quiet Village, not close enough to their home to worry about, but close enough that Vanessa and her oldest daughter, Madison, began preparing for potential evacuation.

They took note of where the cats where, put the family’s two ferrets in the cage and began collecting their most personal items; for Vanessa it was a box containing everything she had left of her son Dylan, who passed away in 1998, and for Jason she collected his grandfather’s hat and placed the items on the porch for a quick getaway if need be.

While Vanessa searched for her wallet, Jason called and told her and the girls to leave immediately. On foot, they fled through the park toward a police vehicle. The only thing Vanessa managed to grab was a metal box containing important documents and some cash.

The officer instructed everyone to get inside a vehicle and drive.

“He told us no matter what you see, you keep driving,” Vanessa said. “You do not stop for anything, he told us.”

As she was relaying this information to her elderly neighbor in the driver’s seat, the officer suddenly motioned for everyone to get out of their vehicles.

He changed tactics and instead had everyone go by foot down a dirt path next to the creek, the bear path, as some might know it.

The cluster of neighbors found themselves at a deadend, their only exit a dry field with patches already ablaze.

The group funneled into the field, and Vanessa instructed her children to ball up the clothes they had in their hands to put in front of their mouths and to stay low to the ground to avoid as much smoke as possible.

She described the smoke as impenetrable and the wind was whipping unforgivably.

She said the wind ripped open the metal box her daughter was holding for her and their papers went everywhere. The group frantically tried to collect the papers as the fires burned nearby and explosions popped like fireworks. She said she noticed a propane tank near a hotspot close to the field and prayed that it would not ignite.

“Fire has always been my biggest phobia,” Vanessa said. “I’ve never been so scared and I’ve never been faced with all my fears all at once — am I going to watch my kids burn to death? It was so horrifying I don’t even have words.”

Then a piece of paper she was trying to catch led her to an unmarked SUV where officers instructed the neighbors to get inside.

They were driven to The Expo, where Vanessa said she and her daughters sat in the grass for about two hours in shock until State Rep. Pam Marsh approached her.

She said Marsh asked her what she needed, and she responded, “Get me out of here.”

Marsh took the family to a Sonic restaurant to get a cold drink and had the family stay at her house for the night.

Jason, meanwhile, had been broadcasting updates on the fire for a short time before abandoning post to try to get to his family.

He said the roads were blocked because the freeway had been shut down. He was stuck watching the fire blaze north and through his community as he listened to the police scanner and all of the responses of “we have no resources to send you.”

The Houks and both of their children are safe. They found two of their three cats. Their ferrets died in the fire.

There is a group that goes to the burned remains of the park daily to look for pets that might have survived the fire and to set out food for the cats they see on the trail cameras they’ve placed around the rubble.

After staying at Marsh’s house that first night, the family stayed with a friend for a while and moved into a semi-permanent rental Wednesday.

The Houks said since they have returned to housing insecurity, they are incredibly rich. They said they’ve had so many people offer to help them. The home is being offered to them at a great rental price, but it’s still about three times what they paid for their 1970s trailer home, and they foresee being able to afford it for about a year.

The Houk’s expressed concern that new regulations will spring up in regard to replacing the mobile home parks that scorched. They agreed that nobody wants a 1970s mobile home, but it is substantially cheaper than a 2010 or newer model, a standard some parks are requiring.

Their worry is that such regulations could hurt people on the cusp of homelessness.

“There’s a lot of giving, but there’s a lot of people falling through the cracks,” Jason said. “We know people living in the shell of their burned-out home because they have nowhere else to go.”

Vanessa spoke at a gathering on the Plaza last Saturday with a local group forming to bring attention to the lack of housing and how it’s affecting the homeless community.

She said there has been a huge outpouring of donations, but homeless people are not receiving the services they need.

Jason mentioned several services available to fire victims, such as the Wildfire Damage Housing Relief program, which offers up to $7,000 through the state (apply at www.oregon.gov/ohcs/housing-assistance/Pages/program-wildfire-damage-housing-relief.aspx); and Disaster Unemployment Assistance offered through FEMA and administered through the Employment Department (apply at www.oregon.gov/employ/Unemployment/Pages/Disaster-Assistance.aspx).

Vanessa said she is still bothered that she never received an alert through the county and nobody knocked on their doors.

“I just have a lot of questions for the county when they decided to not send out an alert,” Vanessa said. “If Jason had not called us, I don’t know if we would have gotten out.”

Vanessa said the family thought their elderly and blind neighbor had perished in the fire, only to find out he had been hospitalized. The man had found his way by himself down the path next to the creek and was eventually found, but no one knocked on his door, she said.

Vanessa said her family was as prepared as they could be — they attended safety fairs every year, they had plans, they had fire safety equipment, and they were signed up for the Jackson County alerts and the city of Ashland alerts.

“We thought signing up for that was a level of protection,” Vanessa said.

Jason said KSKQ is a part of the emergency alert hub.

“We do a lot of work to make sure those systems work, and it was not activated,” Jason said. There were people who burned to death in Phoenix. There was no reason that there shouldn’t have been an alert.”

“I’ve got a lot of disappointment in Ashland,” Vanessa said.

Wildfire Division Chief Chris Chambers said the mobile home park the Houks lived in is outside of city limits, and because the fire moved north, there was no need to send out an evacuation alert for anyone inside the city.

Chambers said several homes within the city were damaged, and all of those people were evacuated.

He explained that the city has control over the Nixle alert system. The county has control over the county alert system, but also has access to issue alerts through the Ashland system.

Chambers has spent years educating people about the fast spread of wildfire and how everyone should be prepared to leave at all times during fire season in the Rogue Valley.

“I’ve run through so many of those scenarios,” Chambers said. “I could not have imagined that the fire would have gone on to wreak as much havoc as it did, and in the direction that it went is a rare day. Unfortunately, it was that rare day that the fires went down the valley.”

Chambers said the fire department has been in contact with ODOT about the traffic that poured into town during the fires and that a better protocol needs to be established.

He said the department recently received a grant through the state to hire a consultant to perform an evacuation traffic study.

The reality of what happened in Talent and Phoenix is that people weren’t ready,” Chambers said. “This should be the big wake-up call that everyone needs to be ready to go at all times during the entire fire season.”

According to John Vial, Emergency Operations Center director, the fire moved very fast and included far more law enforcement agencies than normal, which created problems with the alert system.

Chambers said the internet was down and the cell towers were overwhelmed that day, causing more havoc on the system.

Jason urged anyone who has a vacation rental in the area to contact United Way and offer it to someone displaced by the fires. He also recommended reaching out to Unete and the McKenzie River Gathering Foundation.

“There’s nowhere to go but up,” Vanessa said.

Email freelance writer Caitlin Fowlkes at caitlin.fowlkes@gmail.com.

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