Lupita Suárez, a member of Our Lady of the Mountain Parish in Ashland, harvests grapes in Talent. (Courtesy Lupita Suárez)
Lupita Suárez, a member of Our Lady of the Mountain Parish in Ashland, harvests grapes in Talent. (Courtesy Lupita Suárez)

MEDFORD — A year after the devastating Almeda Fire, hundreds of families from Talent and other Jackson County cities continue a fight to regain emotional stability and find a place to live.

Among them is Lupita Suárez, a volunteer choir director at Our Lady of the Mountain Parish in Ashland.

On Sept. 8, 2020, residents of Talent and Phoenix withstood one of the most destructive fires in state history. The devastation compounded challenges already in place because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It was terrifying,” Suárez said in Spanish through tears. “Emotions come and go, and I still remember it like it was yesterday.” 

Impact on mental health

“With the high temperatures, strong winds and smoke from the fire these days, I have felt panic again,” Suárez said, referring to the Bootleg Fire, one of the largest blazes in the nation earlier this summer. Smoke from California also has been drifting north.

Other families affected by the Almeda Fire have expressed the same anxiety and stress, especially those with children, Suárez explained.

“It is difficult to face and then leave behind the pain and sadness when we still feel so helpless,” she said. “Many people and families impacted by the fire stopped coming to church and we were making calls to contact them, but their phones are disconnected.”

Lack of financial resources

Suárez is grateful for the solidarity shown by the Catholic Church and people with good hearts. But the aid was short term in a situation that calls for sustained assistance.

“I received a donation of $3,000 and that gift has been fundamental because it has gotten me out of trouble in the moments when I have not had a job,” she said.

At the same time, she expressed frustration. “I feel tired of not finding enough help, the help that we need.”

Suárez explained that the majority of affected families lived in mobile homes that did not have fire insurance. Others, like her, were low-income apartment renters.

“We lost everything,” she said. “Many of us feel poorer than ever. There is no real process, no plan that you can follow to get help. You go here, you go there, you waste time looking for help. Everything is uncertain. The truth is that losing a day of work is too much. We cannot afford to stop working to search for something that does not exist.”

Housing access a challenge

In a quiet and safe Talent neighborhood, Suárez had put her money, hope and energy into making her Anderson Vista apartment the place of her dreams. She lived there for about six years, accompanied by her dogs Tequila and Nala. Her apartment was close to the farms where she works.

More than 2,000 people sought emergency shelter after the Almeda Fire. A state report on the fire said that affordable housing continues to be scarce.

After the blazes, Suárez filled out a Red Cross application and was able to rent a low-income apartment for farm workers. But the term expired and she had to vacate. She recently found an apartment in Central Point, much farther from her work.

Talent Mobile Estates is a bare field a year after the Almeda Fire. (Marc Salvatore/El Centinela)

Immigration status and language

Many fire victims faced complications over language barriers and concerns about their immigration status.

Suárez said that numerous households, including her, did not apply for federal emergency funds, in part because they believed they were not eligible or because they feared information would be shared with immigration authorities.

“The eligibility requirements at FEMA are confusing and there is no one person who speaks your language clearly and guides you on whether or not you can really receive the aid and how this may or may not affect your immigration status,” she said.

Other people also worry about being a burden to the state, which under new laws can foil an application for permanent residence.

No alert

On Sept. 8 last year, Suárez left her house at 5 a.m. as usual and headed to the fields. She worked long hours into the afternoon.

“Nobody notified us of the fire,” she said, surprised that the emergency notification system failed.

Some residents heard about it on social media. Suárez got a phone call from a friend who said Talent was being evacuated. She tried to rush home but was caught in a traffic jam. She finally got to her apartment, which was full of smoke. She ran to rescue her dogs and her guitar.

“Everything was chaos,” Suárez said. “The fire was harassing us and we were stuck in traffic. In a matter of 15 minutes the flames were already in our homes.”

A former employer who lives in a hilly part of Talent offered shelter. The two women had a sleepless night worrying about where the winds would blow the flames next.

“It was truly terrifying,” Suarez said.

The limit of aid

Dagoberto Morales, executive director of Unete, an organization that advocates for workers, explained that the needs of the people are overwhelming.

“We are at the limit of our capacity. We do the best we can, but the needs are great,” he said. In the past, his organization received funding from the Catholic Campaign for Human Development.

Morales said the Almeda Fire left not only ash and debris, but also economic and mental wounds of incalculable proportions that will take a long time for families to overcome.

“Many of the people lived in mobile homes and have no option to rebuild,” he said. 

Lupita Suárez plays guitar and leads the Spanish choir at Our Lady of the Mountain Church in Ashland. She is accompanied by Yolanda Alegría, Maria Luisa Alvarez and Sara Díaz. (Courtesy Lupita Suárez)

Faith, the best medicine

Suárez explained that her mental health has been greatly affected.

“I have not been able to sleep well since then,” she said. “The only thing that really keeps us going is faith and trust in God.”

It was especially painful when, during the pandemic, she could not attend Mass in person. But now she is back at Mass where she tends to “hand everything over to God.”

The healing is slow, even among people of faith.

“The emotional impact of the pandemic and the fires has been devastating,” Suárez said. “There is a general feeling of anger. I often hear angry comments about God. In the face of trial, it is easier to think that God has abandoned us, but it is faith that keeps us firm. In those darkest moments, through prayer God gives us the light — perhaps not the strongest but enough to continue each day.”

As Suárez continues her struggle to achieve financial and emotional stability, she gives free time to the choir at Our Lady of the Mountain.

Music, she explains, keeps her closer to God, gives her peace and builds her confidence to continue.