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Shelter from the storms

Jamie Lusch / Mail TribuneThe Jackson County Expo quickly transformed into a place of refuge when the Almeda and Obenchain fires ripped through the region last September and displaced thousands of residents.
How The Expo quickly transformed from entertainment hub to a place of refuge

Usually known as the hub of concerts, fairs, rodeos and livestock auctions, The Expo quickly transformed into a place of refuge when the Almeda and Obenchain fires ripped through the region last September and displaced thousands of residents.

The Expo had been shut down from regular events during the pandemic, which inadvertently gave regional officials a place to care for an onslaught of displaced fire victims.

Months prior to the devastation of last Sept. 8, planning had been underway to ready The Expo for housing a large number of migrant farm workers should a COVID outbreak occur.

Stephen Lambert, park program manager for Jackson County, said the fairgrounds had otherwise served largely as a collection point for personal protective equipment for health care workers.

“Prior to the day of the fire, I had been working with the Emergency Operations Center on COVID planning. When we first got introduced to COVID-19, one of the things we did was try to work with our agricultural community to ensure, as migrant farm workers came into the valley in July, August and maybe September, that we had a plan in place in the event of an outbreak,” Lambert said.

“By the end of August, we had a building set up with 45 beds, curtains between them, electricity. We were all prepared to quarantine and isolate farm workers should we need to do so. That never came to fruition, but the leg work had been done.”

On the day of the fires, Lambert said, the available 45 cots served as a mere starting point as The Expo morphed into a resource hub, temporary home, field hospital and communications center just hours after large portions of Phoenix and Talent were reduced to ash.

“We realized very quickly that, holy moly, this is going to be a large-scale evacuation site,” said Lambert.

“We said, ‘OK, we got 45 beds set up already. Let’s have those ready, and let’s set up these other buildings to create as many spaces as possible.’”

Within hours, the fairgrounds became a scene of controlled chaos. Ambulances delivered nursing home residents; evacuees arrived with extended family and pets; the county animal shelter set up shop when its own facility was threatened by flames.

Both Lambert and co-incident commander J. Domis, interim director of parks for Jackson County, said they focused on getting through one day at a time and meeting needs as they arose.

Domis said the community stepped in to provide emotional support and medical supplies, and met unexpected needs such as phone-charging stations, DMV services and pet supplies.

“We had a wide range of unique sheltering requests. We had people who wanted to be in tents and people that wanted to sleep in their car and just needed a safe place to park. Other people had nothing and needed a cot in the main event center, and some who had an RV they were able to get ahold of after a few days. It was an evolving situation for a lot of people, but the first and main effort was just to give people a place to come and to just be,” Lambert said.

With the logistics in place, Domis said, the community stepped up. Roads and parks crews manned traffic, park rangers cleaned bathrooms, and local municipalities sent whatever was asked for. Expo staff hosted the entire scene and helped with everything from registration and other paperwork to managing overall logistics.

“We started with the most basic of needs like shelter, food and water, and there was just a huge community outpouring of everything else you could imagine. Tents, sleeping bags, blankets and pillows were donated. People showed up with food for feeding whoever was there. Some of it was organized businesses and some of it was just community members who wanted to do whatever they could,” he said.

“As the days went by, the realization of what all was lost set in. People realized they’d lost all their documentation, so we started at that point of developing other relationships with other partners, whether medical or DMV related. We had a rudimentary but functional mail system … whatever we realized was lost or missing, we tried to help with,” he added.

“Some of it was tangible things, but some of it was just people wanting to help meet the needs of people who were hurting. People put up lawn chairs and were willing to just sit with people. We had massage therapists, people who gave haircuts … so many things were happening.”

While weeks would stretch into months, Domis said, the community was unwavering in its willingness to care for their own.

“We set out to do our best and immediately we were assisted by other agencies and even regular community members. It was so heartwarming to see. In many cases, the evacuees were even helping each other,” he said.

“These were people spending their days together who had all endured this traumatic event and they were being each other’s listening ears, sharing resources and just helping each other get through.”

Lambert said the biggest takeaway for him was the caliber of community support and partnerships that both existed already and that materialized almost before the flames had gone out.

“When it all went down, everyone just had an attitude of service. ‘What can we do?’ From The Expo team to community justice and every city in the valley. There wasn’t a department in the county that wasn’t willing to help. And as tired as everyone was, as much need as there was, I honestly never heard a gripe,” Lambert said.

“It’s weird to drive by now. We had people there for two months solid. And then we had the vaccine clinic. Before, it was always just the fairgrounds but, to drive by now, there are all these emotional connections.”

Reach freelance writer Buffy Pollock at buffyp76@yahoo.com.