The Mendez family's house is pictured after the fire.
The Mendez family's house is pictured after the fire.
MEDFORD — Aaron Mendez, a 19-year-old civil engineering major enrolled at Oregon State University, was intent on Zoom meetings Sept. 8 at the family home in Phoenix. Aaron didn’t know flames were surging northward along Highway 99 toward him and his younger brothers.

His mother, Sonia, was in Mexico at a family funeral. Aaron had been in touch with his father, Matias, public works superintendent for Phoenix. The father and son knew about a fire some distance south and were on alert for evacuation orders, but the official call had not come. Instead, a family friend phoned urging a quick retreat.

“None of us knew it was moving so fast,” said Aaron.

Matias rushed home. Family was foremost in their minds so they worked to get in touch with one grandfather, a Talent resident who transports pears from the region’s many orchards. Matias started to drive to find the patriarch, but police turned him back. Highway 99 south was closed, with all lanes given over to northbound evacuees.

Reluctantly, Matias turned around. As they drove back into Phoenix, the Mendez men saw how destructive the fires were.

Matias, because of his job, was obligated to go check the city’s water pumps. He put Aaron in charge of gathering belongings from the house. In 10 minutes, Aaron and his brothers, Adan and Adrian, grabbed photos and computers. Matias returned and found documents in the family safe. Adrian, 9, scooped up his pet fish and put it into a water-filled plastic container. He was not able to save his bicycle and is feeling the loss of his favored transport.

One of the last items they saved: a 3-foot tall image of Our Lady of Guadalupe. The family are devout members of Sacred Heart Parish here.

The Mendezes confirmed that the grandfather in Talent was safe. Then Matias returned to the pumps and to help other citizens evacuate. He put Aaron in charge of driving his brothers north to Medford to the other grandparents’ house.

Aaron had reached his mother on the phone from Mexico to let her know what was happening. In addition to mourning her relative, she now feared for her home. Her advice to her son: “We can replace belongings, but not people.”

Everyone was worried about Matias, who was faithful to his post in Phoenix. But then the fire chief told all workers to leave. Much of the city was going to burn.

The Mendez home had been simple yet inviting. The back yard included a tidy shop and a large patio with white lights because the family likes to entertain. For Sonia, a parish catechist and ubiquitous host and volunteer, it had been hard to forego gatherings during the pandemic. Now she has no place to welcome people.

“I liked to serve the community,” she said, wiping away tears. Now the community is helping her family, which feels uncomfortable but wonderful.

“I feel the love,” said Sonia. “God has given us so much strength.”

The house was insured and the family intends to build again on the property.

Aaron, while he will miss his home, recognizes that many families are in a worse position. “I feel bad for them,” he said.

The Mendez family now is staying with friends in Ashland.