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‘When one of our neighbors is down, we come together’

Mill Fire survivors reflect on day their neighborhood — and their lives — changed forever
Dave Rodgers pauses while surveying his home, destroyed by the Mill Fire Sept. 3, in Weed, Calif. Rodgers, who lived in the house his entire life, was able to take an elderly neighbor with him as he fled the fast-moving blaze but has not been able to find his two dogs that were left behind. [AP Photo/Noah Berger]
Lincoln Heights, the neighborhood in Weed where Annie Broomfield- Peterson lived with her son, Johnathan Roberts, was devastated by the Mill Fire. [Morgan Rothborne/Mail Tribune]

The Mill Fire gave Annie Broomfield-Peterson no time to think — not even to grab her purse or any of her prescriptions. She was barely able to get out with her disabled son before their home was consumed.

“The world just lit up; it was all on fire,” Broomfield-Peterson said.

“I can’t even say how I feel. I have nightmares. It’s like you’re still in a dream. Every time that wind comes up, I get scared because that wind was bad that day.”

She was sitting on a porch with a brother from her church, she said, when they heard an explosion. They looked up and saw smoke and felt wind, and then the fire was on them.

Her son, Johnathan Roberts, is disabled from a bad fall two years ago.

“People call me Big John. I’m 6-foot-5,” he said.

He was taking a nap when his brother called to warn him of the fire. He expected a small vegetation fire and didn’t move until he heard his mother screaming the trees and the lawn outside were in flames.

Knowing Big John would not be able to get out on his own, Broomfield-Peterson’s brother tried to drive down from his house up the street, but a downed power line trapped him where he was, Roberts said.

The family’s pastor and her husband came from the church up the street with a trailer from the couple’s landscaping business, along with two of their guys. Roberts had time to pull on underwear, and that was all.

“I was crawling, and they were pulling at me, and they were like, ‘Yeah if you can crawl, then crawl, buddy,’ and they were dragging me and really pulling on me, but I don’t blame ’em, they were trying to save my life,” he said.

As they prepared to pull away with Big John and Annie in their trailer, the family looked back to see the room where they had all been minutes before completely lost to flames.

It was in the hospital the next day where Big John was recovering from cuts and smoke inhalation that the family learned they lost not only their own home and everything in it, but his grandmother’s larger home next door where he and his mother were preparing to move.

Their story repeats through the Lincoln Heights neighborhood in Weed. The loss is greater than any one lost home, said Jay Greene, a native of the area.

“All of those homes down the street, I either knew who they were, or they were related to me,” he said. “Generations and generations grew up together, and now it’s like this.”

Houses were passed down between family. The loss echoes out to the generations coming behind the displaced of today. Those blackened piles of twisted metal and ash would have been the homes of children, nieces or nephews.

He pointed to a house still standing but damaged by the violence of firefighting — hoses were sprayed inside, and a hole was cut in the roof to vent the house.

“That was my grandparents’ house, right down there,” he said, “My baby brother and his wife had been in there doing repairs and renovations. My nephews, they just started their stuff a couple days before,” Greene said.

The family hasn’t decided whether they will try to renovate it or tear it down and rebuild.

“This neighborhood used to be full of young people. Twenty or 30 of us riding around on our bikes, with cards on the spokes to make ’em sound like motorcycles. That brown house down there, she was the nosiest woman alive. ...

“She’d call up my grandma, ‘Your grandbaby is throwing rocks at the trucks down there,’ ’cause she recognized me,” Greene said. “Everybody knew everybody.”

Greene was driving up from Sacramento, returning to his childhood home to care for his aging father, he explained. Then he got a call, telling him go back — there’s a fire in Weed; you won’t be able to get in.

He called his father first. No answer. Then his brother. No answer.

Finally his sister-in-law answered. All of them had evacuated and were waiting at a restaurant on the other side of town. He later learned his cousin was covered in third-degree burns, and his cousin’s wife had a heart attack during the fire and died.

Greene stood on his father’s porch, looking down the hill with wistful eyes at the many homes lost. Greene’s family home is a part of the small enclave of Lincoln Heights still standing.

He pointed to piles of charred wood and heat-bent metal that were once houses owned by cousins, aunts and friends.

Gerry Lewis Smith was sitting with his nephew, Derek Williams, looking at a row of folding chairs set out in front of the Weed Community Center, on the other side of the highway from where the Lincoln Heights neighborhood stretches toward the Roseburg Forest Products veneer plant, the likely origin of the fire.

Survivors have been able to come to the Community Center and get resources, gift cards, food and other help, he said. He has been here every day since the family lost everything. He pointed to where his family’s home was, just across the street.

“That was my parents’ house. My daddy come out here and work at the mill. My parents raise me up in there,” he said, “Then it was my oldest sister’s house and then the next oldest sister, and I’m the oldest brother. My brother and my nephews were living there with me.”

The fire surprised Smith the same way it surprised Peterson, but he didn’t hear the explosion.

“We were sitting at the kitchen table, and my brother come out and said, ‘What’s that burning?’ ... “I open my front door, and this whole town, every yard was on fire.”

“I’m 63 years old; it made me run. I had to. I helped two old ladies to get out.”

On their side of town, they remembered the loss of their neighbor, Miss Marilyn (Hilliard, age 73), one of two women in the neighborhood to die in the fire. The other fatality was Lorenza Glover, age 65.

Like Roberts, Smith and Williams had no time to collect any of their possessions. They lost everything.

Roberts said the past few years have been hard for his family. His mother has just recovered from a relapse of breast cancer. Doctors recently told her they saw no further evidence of cancer, but they would have to check again later to be sure.

Before the fire, he was trying to regain the mobility he once had. He and his cousin worked together using equipment at home to overcome the lack of available physical therapy, part of living in a rural area, he explained.

But his wheelchair and equipment burned in the fire, along with all his clothes and his phone. But like his mother, Roberts was eager to speak of where he draws strength.

“My mom and me, we have always been together. Without me, there’s no her, and without her, there’s no me,” he said, “It’s a small town; everyone knows everyone. When one of our neighbors is down, we come together.”

Broomfield-Peterson hasn’t lost herself to despair, she said. Her faith is enough even for this moment.

“God is a good God; he spared our lives; he was there to take care of all of us, and he’s going to see us through all of this,” she said. “You gotta catch onto faith and hold onto it. God will see you through.”

Ashland resident Christine Lynch, a friend of Broomfield-Peterson and a former colleague at Weed Elementary, has organized a gofundme to help Peterson get back on her feet. It can be found at gofundme.com/f/ms-p-annie-peterson. The campaign had raised $4,835 as of Wednesday.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Morgan Rothborne at mrothborne@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4487. Follow her on Twitter @MRothborne.