Out of Ashes: Community Recovers from Devastating Fire
Have you been walking through a fire lately? When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze (Is 43:2). These words are true!
On September 8, 2020, the Almeda fire swept north from Almeda Street in Ashland to Medford, almost completely destroying Talent and Phoenix, the two towns in between. There were more than 2,800 structures destroyed, and some of those were apartment buildings. By God’s grace only three people lost their lives, including a suspect in the arson that started the fire. Another arsonist was observed by a couple in Phoenix after the larger fire was already bearing down on its third town. That man was later arrested.
I attended Talent Junior High and Phoenix Elementary and High School, and I know eight friends and relatives who lost everything. Within a month after the fire, I drove through the wreckage. Temperatures had been so hot that radiators and aluminum hubcaps had melted into puddles underneath cars. You could look straight through aluminum trailers. The vault of what used to be a bank was totally exposed, and many who had private safes opened them to find ashes inside. [photo] Though the safes didn’t melt, they couldn’t keep the temperature inside from rising above Fahrenheit 451, the temperature at which paper burns.
The father of a couple of my teammates from high school cross country and track woke that morning and noticed how hot, dry, and windy it was. He used his backhoe to make a fire line around his home and that of a neighbor. He wrote to me, “I had a strange feeling to do it because I’d never seen such a violent wind so early in the morning….” The fire stopped at the fire line he had dug. He added, “Worked out just right.”
Cassandra Cornwell graduated from Phoenix High School a couple of years after me. When she and her younger sister, Molly Marchetti, heard the fire was moving from Ashland to Talent, where their parents lived, they invited their parents to join them in Phoenix. When the fire raged north to Phoenix they all evacuated to the home of their cousin in Northeast Medford. You can hear their story in our interviews by clicking here. Cornwell wrote, “One of the homes in the park was saved by the owner’s husband and their sons using the water bottles they found in her carport and then running over to the pool, filling them up and going back to her house to fight the fire. Her cat survived under her bed.” You can see the footage of the moment they returned to what used to be their house in the video. Molly said she believes her healing was more complete because she was able to shut the camera off and grieve when they found that everything was destroyed. They couldn’t even find porcelain, which melts at more than 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit.
Eric Richey, who I first met when our mothers were listening to the services at Phoenix Presbyterian Church from the nursing room, took me through the ashes of what used to be his home and the family barn. Nails were lined up in perfect rows in the dirt as if the wood evaporated. [photo] A shovel’s handle was separated from the spade by the distance of the handle, which was completely gone. [photo] Their ’54 Chevy had become so hot that when an unknown object fell on the roof it caved in. [photo] The pole atop their pool’s cyclone fence was disconnected, since the ringlets holding it up were aluminum and melted before the steel fence. The fire ran along the fence, burning up the vines that decorated it… right up to the oil tank, where the fire stopped. The fire came within two miles of my family’s farm, and my parents reported hearing explosions all day and into the night as tanks like the Richeys’ exploded. On the other side of their untouched tank stands Cecelia Richey’s home — where she and her late husband Rick had raised Eric and his late brother Brad — without a hint that an inferno came within inches of destroying it. On their wall is a plaque: “There is always a reason to be grateful.” [photo]
Eric and his family moved in with his mother until he rebuilt his home.
I was tremendously blessed by Eric’s attitude, and how he consistently pointed people to the Lord during such a dark season, sometimes through comedy. He posted “ads” on social media for completely torched vehicles with captions like, “Slightly used. Best offer.” Even as I type I am moved to laugh and cry at the same time, probably what Eric felt when he posted it.
My parents housed their friends Stan and Carolyn Bartel the night of the fire. When they left their downtown business, Phoenix Auto Center, the fire was already across the street, and they were concerned that their home, a few blocks away, was in the path of the blaze. I prayed with them that night over the phone. It was several days before that part of town was opened up and they could find out if their business or their home survived. Our prayers were answered, and both did. Their house was also surrounded by ashes.
All but one of the churches in the area were spared! I performed my one-man play The Revelation at one of them that month. Ethan Hill of Light Symphony Productions flew a drone to take footage of what had been a trailer park, turned it around and flew down to see me as John the Apostle, looking out over the devastation. The congregation saw that footage on a screen, then John entered the sanctuary and said, “I’m John, and I was sent back from Heaven to tell you that the God of All Comfort longs to comfort you.” And then I began the play.
The Almeda Fire may have been so devastating because Southern Oregon was in drought conditions. I had some experience with praying for rain. Years ago our church, Westchester Chapel Church of the Nazarene, produced a drama about the feast described in Leviticus 12:15-22. We ended with a dance and a prayer song, “Hosannah save us.” The song included a prayer for rain, since Zechariah 14:16-19 pronounces a drought on those who do not honor The Feast of Tabernacles. New York City was in drought conditions that year, and after our production the reservoirs were filled to sufficiency! As the Lord lined things up, I happened to visit the Richey homestead at the end of The Feast of Tabernacles. I felt compelled to bring a ram’s horn and prayer shawl on that trip, so I used them to pray for rain. You can see that in the video.
The next day rain fell hard. [photo]
But it wasn’t enough to end the drought, which continued through 2021. My father is retired, but he leases our orchard, and the fruit was too small to sell that harvest because it didn’t get enough water. After seeing thousands of pears on the ground during my most recent trip in December 2021 I asked why they couldn’t have been sold for juice. He said it would have cost the orchardist who was renting the land more to have them picked than he would have made selling them.
But on this trip it rained, and it snowed! Dad said it’s better to have precipitation in snow because rain runs down into the valley, but snow seeps into the soil. It snowed several days in row, and it was snowing when I prayed again at the Richeys’ brand new home on the same property. You can see that in the video. Eric and his wife Ewa were led to get better insurance four months before the fire, so their rebuild was completely covered.
Sadly, some were underinsured or completely uninsured. My classmate Reena Ficek wrote, “I’m fortunate enough to work for physicians that have a company house I have been in since the fire which has helped in the recovery process.” Some are still living with friends or relatives, and others are living in Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) trailers. Thankfully their lives were spared. Join me in praying for them in the video.
Cornwell is now a Zone Captain, helping people in the area recover.
How have you seen God work through tragic times? Share in the comments!
Rich Swingle has taught and performed in 39 nations on six continents, mostly with his own one-man plays. He’s also performed in more than forty film projects. He and his bride, Joyce Swingle, another contributing writer for IFA, now have 37 screen children. The Swingles live in New York City. www.RichDrama.com
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