The bobcat’s foot pads had burned off. All that was left were blackened stumps. His eyes were burned and his nose was a black lump of flesh. He lay on the side of the bike path, his belly bloating in the noonday sun.
I thought about his last moments of life, running helplessly through the flaming forest until his very feet were burned off. Then I thought about the people who, Unable to escape, had died more or less the same way.
I rode to Medford today from Ashland. The keyboard for my iPad was the wrong flavor so I had to return it and exchange it for the one with double-stuf and peanut butter chips.
I wasn’t prepared for what awaited. The Bear Creek Greenway is a beautiful bike path that runs between the two cities, only now it is a stretch of asphalt that threads an apocalyptic wasteland on either side.
The fire, whipped by huge winds, had raced up the riparian area, scorching every single tree and other living thing in its path. It resembled a scene from a world war battlefield, because the ruined and twisted trees were occasionally broken by the remnants of RV parks that had been burned into smoldering heaps of slag.
Ashland is a city that lives on tourism, and most of that tourism comes from neighboring California. The city is quaint, hip, beautiful, and a theater town, home to the first Elizabethan outdoor theater in America and host of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, a world renowned performing arts center.
But as with every other town that survives on tourism, the people who do the work for the tourists are poor. Ashland’s rental properties prior to the fire were at 99% occupancy and had been that way for years. As a result, the people who clean the dishes, cook the food, scrub the toilets, and do all of the other myriad jobs to make sure that tourists get a world-class experience at bargain basement prices live somewhere else.
Out of sight and certainly out of mind.
With nowhere in Ashland to live, the I-5 corridor leading north to Medford has spawned numerous trailer parks and long-term RV parks where poor people can cobble together minimum wage jobs and still have a roof over their heads.
Working people were priced out of the Ashland housing market years and years and years ago, and their trailer encampments range from poor to squalor.
In the course of an afternoon, the precarious balance that has kept the local economy alive had a sword thrust through its heart. The fire tore through the trailer and RV park communities, destroying all but one or two. One man I spoke to, Tom, said that he had had five minutes to leave.
“It was raining red ash,” he said, and as a former wildfire firefighter, he knew that red ash meant the wall of flames was only yards away. He and his wife escaped with their car, his Harley, their ferrets, and nothing else.
“My employer [an Ashland hotel] was kind enough to give me a room for a few days. After that I don’t know what I’ll do.”
This catastrophe comes in the midst of the town’s biggest shock ever, the complete shutdown of theShakespeare Festival through at least August 2021, which is the backbone of Ashland’s tourist economy. I asked Tom what he was going to do.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Go back to Idaho and try to find another RV that maybe I can live in.”
I also spoke with a woman who owns a seasonal espresso stand. “I was already strapped with the pandemic, but I applied for PPP and was able to hire my employees for the first part of the season. But we literally have no customers, and now this. I’ve let everyone go.”
The downtown was deserted and filled with smoky, smelly air, hardly the place that you’d want to go spend the weekend. I walked over to the theater, which had been converted into a donation, packing, and staging area for clothing, bedding, and other emergency donations.
The white working community had been devastated, but so had the Spanish-speaking community, and bags were labeled in Spanish and English. I spent an hour or so helping load a van that was taking supplies to Medford. It was heartwarming to see so many people donating and volunteering, but infuriating to think that in America, again, total devastation and calamity was left to the efforts of ordinary people.
Where was the fucking government?
The police and first responders had done a terrible job of coordinating with news so that people even knew where the fire was. Lives had been saved not by coordinated information or by use of the emergency broadcast system, but by people listening to their police scanners and by posting realtime fire information on Facebook and Instagram. The local tv news station reported virtually nothing from the fires. No one involved or affected doubts that this mismanagement cost livelihoods and lives.
And then there was the question of deployment of resources. Were maximal resources deployed at the trailer parks or for the preservation of commercial establishments? Were people put before property, especially poor people?
Much of the devastation was due to the vagaries of a wind-driven inferno, but the lack of a fire code, the placement of cheap housing among dry forest with piled up fuel along the riparian area of the creek meant that this kind of conflagration was only a matter of time. Yet the response was disorganized and came as a complete surprise, as if no one could have predicted or prepared for the obvious.
As I pedaled along the bike path my nose burned from the smoke. People’s lives had been snuffed out because it’s cheaper to burn poor people to death than it is to give them a living wage and a safe, secure place to live.
“We’ll rebuild,” one man defiantly told me.
All I could think was “Yes, another matchbox.”
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