If you already know what it means to worry that your home will soon burn to the ground, you don’t need to read on. If not, let Eleanor Carter ’22 and Kaiya John ’23, two Vassar students from a rural area in southwest Oregon, paint that picture for you. Kaiya and Eleanor went to the same high school. Their hometowns are just miles apart, and now they live just a few doors down from one another in Lathrop.
Eleanor is from Ashland, a picturesque town of about 20,000 people nestled in a valley between the Siskiyou Forest and Cascade mountain range. Ashland deserves its own story—everyone there is seemingly bound to a hippie ethos. When Eleanor graduated from high school, family friends gave her crystals as tokens of good luck. (For your edification and Eleanor’s sanity, I should point out that she is not a crystal hippie). Ashland is a mostly well-off community, the sort of town where the coffee shops sell $8 juices. A sheer gap in wealth equality means there is almost no middle class in Ashland, just mansions within the city limits, working class homes below the main boulevard and little in between. A flood of tourists from the town’s annual Shakespeare festival—the largest of its kind in the United States—makes the town seem more affluent than it is. There is one high school in Ashland, and, most importantly, everyone knows everyone.
Kaiya is from a town called Talent, just a few miles to the northeast of Ashland on Highway 99. Talent boasts three grocery stores, one gas station and 4,000 people. Kaiya says it’s a one street town, with a population on the older side. “We don’t have anything else to do,” said Kaiya. And just like Ashland, everyone in Talent knows each other.
As wildfires are common during this time of year, both Eleanor and Kaiya were signed up to receive alerts from the emergency notification system. On Tuesday, the Almeda fire broke out three blocks from Eleanor’s home. Eleanor and Kaiya, who are 3,000 miles away, were in class when they started getting notifications. “Evacuate Quiet Village,” said one of the alerts, referring to Eleanor’s neighborhood. From there, the fire spread to a skate park and followed a greenway that runs parallel to a bike path. Soon Interstate 5, Oregon’s only interstate, was shuttered due to traffic.
The official count of homes destroyed by the fire is at 600. However, the state doesn’t count mobile homes as houses. Because all the mobile home neighborhoods, of which there are many, in the area burned down, that number is actually in the thousands. An estimated 80% of Phoenix Elementary School students and 50% of Talent Elementary School students are now homeless.
An Oregon man was soon arrested for potential arson in connection with the fire, but Kaiya and Eleanor know that he isn’t really to blame for the whole wreckage. It was 100 degrees the day the fire started and winds blustered at 50 mph—two symptoms of climate change that have caused recent wildfires to swell to unprecedented magnitudes. “You can’t even use a lawnmower because it could spark and go up,” Eleanor explained.
Kaiya’s father is an arborist, but the times he can use power tools on the job are limited. “It used to be you couldn’t use it after 1 p.m., now it’s 10 a.m.” she said.
In past summers, pregnant women were cautioned to evacuate from Ashland because of the dangerous air quality index (AQI). At Vassar, the AQI ranges from 10 to 20. 100 is considered dangerous. In Oregon, the AQI can reach 500. “It’s like smoking every time you go outside,” said Eleanor. One summer the air quality was so poor that it made Eleanor sick after each shift at an outdoor restaurant. She recalled, “I would come home, coughing the whole time until my shift the next morning. Not to mention, the current pandemic contains a virus that crudely attacks the lungs, compounding on these fires.”
Looking at The New York Times wildfire tracker, the Almeda Fire now hugs Highway 99 in a reddish-grey haze. It has transformed into an amorphous blob that indiscriminately covers the landscape, roads and subdivisions as it stretches from northeast Ashland to Talent to Phoenix.
“This is the nightmare scenario for college kids who move this far away,” said Eleanor. “This is the thing that you think about. What if my family needs me?”
To make matters worse for Eleanor and Kaiya, neither of their families revealed to them the extent of the damage at home. “Because we’re at this fancy school, they think we shouldn’t be concerned about money, or a fire, or anything. It was really difficult to figure out what was happening,” says Eleanor.
For the first couple of days, Kaiya had to negotiate her desire to know her family’s whereabouts with their desire to keep her mind at ease. “I didn’t want to feel like an extra burden by asking them what was going on,” Kaiya said. She asked for the bare essentials. “I just texted them every night to know where they were sleeping.”
It also remains uncertain how much longer Eleanor and Kaiya will be able to live at Vassar. The COVID-19 pandemic is held at bay by the thin reassurance of a bubble around a campus that is currently down to zero active cases—but if an outbreak occurs, they might be forced to leave Poughkeepsie. What does being “sent back home” mean if you’re sleeping somewhere new every night, or if your home may have burned down?
“Literally my street, all around it is burned down. I don’t know why or how it didn’t but it should have,” explains Kaiya. “There is one street that is Talent,” explained Kaiya. She and Eleanor chuckled. “One side of the street burned down and the other didn’t. I’m on the side that didn’t,” she marveled.
It is a hard thing to wrap your head around, but the same crews that respond to home fires and cats in trees are now fighting fires that cover entire metropolitan areas. Needless to say, the crews are overburdened. “It’s such a great group of guys, but there’s just not enough of them,” said Kaiya, who spent some of her senior year of high school riding in their trucks for a school project. As for Eleanor, she recalls seeing requests for civilians to come help fight the fires. “I saw a Facebook post that read, ‘if you’ve got a bucket and a shovel, come down to this hotel, because it’s about to catch fire.’” The situation escalated from there. Eleanor shared the last news she heard: “The fire was zero percent contained and the fire department decided it was too much to try to control with the few people that they had, so they just stopped fighting it.”
But people haven’t stopped fighting for resources and aid. Eleanor looked down at her phone intermittently throughout the interview. A few minutes in, her phone dinged and she apologized for the interruption. It’s the Slack for the mutual aid spreadsheet, she explains. She repurposed the document Vassar students have been using to support each other since the pandemic hit in March students scattered across the country to return home, with information about the fires. Other people have helped translate the spreadsheet to Spanish, and have pasted links to GoFundMes, but “it has gotten unmanageable,” she admitted. “In the past week I probably spent five or six hours a day responding to people’s requests, explaining how to use it, fielding emails to combine resources. I haven’t done my homework this week…so many people are so desperate.” Her phone rang again. “I just missed a call from a guy who wants to put information on the spreadsheet.”
A gust of wind blowing a different way, and this story could’ve been far graver. The fire is now 60 percent contained, and both Kaiya and Eleanor’s homes have survived. But that could change. “I’m trying to prepare myself mentally because that could still happen,” says Kaiya. As climate change heats and dries the West Coast, wildfires are projected to become as much a part of an Oregon summer as Shakespeare festivals and expensive non-dairy lattes.