Bring back the fun
Just hours after the Almeda fire tore through Talent and Phoenix last September, destroying thousands of homes and businesses, Expo Director Helen Funk knew that the community — and the county fairgrounds where so many locals venture for summer fun — would be forever changed.
The Expo had already been serving as a supply drop and distribution site for personal protective equipment during the pandemic. So when it came to setting up temporary digs for people displaced by the fires, it was “all hands on deck” for staff and volunteers, Funk said.
When The Expo opens for the Jackson County Fair July 14-18, the Mace building that provided a safe space for fire victims, and headquarters for helpers, will host a tribute dubbed “Southern Oregon Strong.”
When people who lost their homes to the fires were sleeping on cots or in their vehicles, grappling with the pandemic and the fires, the Mace building became a makeshift living room for anyone in need.
Fire victims could find everything from medical treatment, a hot meal and various social services to clothing or mental health support — or even just a soft spot to land and listen for news reports.
“Before the fires, we were closed. I’d been mowing the lawn that day, having a mini bantering with God, sort of like, ‘What in the world am I even doing here?’ At one point in my life, I had aspirations to go to med school and instead here I was running a fairgrounds during a pandemic and there’s nothing for me to do other than mow grass and pull weeds,” Funk said.
After initial reports of the Almeda fire, Funk said, Expo staff and volunteers began texting and calling to let her know they were on their way to do whatever could be done.
“Usually this building is used during the fair for what we call ‘watchable wildlife’ — Brad’s World Reptiles, that kind of thing. After Almeda, this was where everyone came for communication — to see what was going on, where everybody came for their assignment, to get messages left for them. There were a lot of tears and sweat in this building.”
On one of those first nights, Tamara Fielding, an administrator at the former Northridge Center, an assisted-living facility lost in the fire, sought comfort at the Mace building and bumped into Funk.
“Northridge basically was starting to burn to the ground as soon as they had evacuated residents. The staff lost all their vehicles and they brought everyone to The Expo. About 2 a.m., she and I wound up walking around making sure everybody got blankets, and we ended up just crying and praying together,” Funk said.
“I said, ‘This is usually the place where people come to have fun. I can’t wait for you to come back one day, and I promise we’ll sit around and laugh and play and have fun here.’”
Fielding said the planned tribute during fair week was apropos.
“I remember feeling just so thankful that they opened up and took us all in. Anybody who needed a place, it was amazing. There were nurses, doctors, staff of The Expo, everyone just took such great care of us. It was just such a sense of community coming together,” Fielding said.
“It’s just so special because everyone is so excited to have life back and the fair back, and to have a place we can go to see where we’ve come from. And where we are at now, I think, will be really good. There will be a lot of tears, but I think there will be some joy, too. Everyone in our community has been through so much. This will bring some healing.”
Ali Leffler, vendor and events coordinator for The Expo, said the tribute during the fair would serve as a reminder of the community pulling together during a traumatic time.
Leffler, who had been on the Oregon Coast when the fires broke out, said she couldn’t have fathomed being anywhere but The Expo when there were community members in need.
“I described it as it was like our living room and dining room. For us, here at The Expo, we’re like a family of brothers and sisters, and we’re all adopted so we’re extra dysfunctional, but there’s definitely a sense of, ‘This is our house,’” said Leffler.
“It was devastating and super unfortunate that they had to come to our house for the reasons that they did, but while they were here we were going to take the best care of them that we know how.”
Leffler added, “Not that long ago I was in the grocery store and a little elderly lady was just hugging my wrist, and she looked up at me, and I sort of recognized her. … She looked me in the eyes and said, ‘You hugged me when my house burned down.’ Right there in Fred Meyer, I completely lost it.”
Funk said fair week was the best way to inject some new memories into what feels a little like hallowed ground after a year of struggle and heartache.
The Mace building will provide a soft spot to land during sweltering heat, along with photos of the community and its many helpers, and be a place for community members to write notes to first responders, Funk said.
“We’ve been plugging along this past year doing what was needed, first with the pandemic and then during the fires. We have all just held on to hope that we would get to have this gigantic reunification of all people for a happy occasion called the Jackson County Fair,” Funk said.
“We got to be there for our community during these hard times, and we wanted to be the ones to bring back the fun.”
Reach freelance writer Buffy Pollock at email@example.com.