Picking Up the Pieces After Oregon Fires

October 2, 2020 • United States

Disaster relief teams are helping Oregon homeowners comb through ashes to find personal belongings.

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“Evacuate now!”

Around 3 p.m. on September 8, Stephen MacAuley was playing the piano in his Phoenix, Oregon, townhouse when he saw a police car drive by and heard an officer announce the emergency warning through a bullhorn.

Stephen MacAulay surveys the ruins and ashes of his property where Samaritan's Purse volunteers are helping him recovery belongings.

Stephen MacAulay surveys the ruins and ashes of his property where Samaritan’s Purse volunteers are helping him recovery belongings.

Stephen knew wildfires had been reported in the area, but he never thought they would reach his suburban Medford neighborhood. “I started running around searching for my two cats,” he said. “Then the power went out. I was frantic. I had the light from my cell phone, but I didn’t have much power left.”

After rounding up the cats, Stephen grabbed his laptop, mostly to give he and his wife Deaven, who was working at the time, something to do before they would be allowed to return home. Even with thick, black smoke choking the Jackson County sky, Stephen still wasn’t worried about his house. “I didn’t think the fire was going to come this far in.”

The next day while he and Deaven ran an errand, Stephen saw a video online of their neighborhood. He knew their house was gone. “I held my emotions and didn’t show them to Deaven since she was driving,” he said. “I waited until we pulled over to tell her.” When they finally were allowed to return to their property, they saw 10 years of memories reduced to soot and ashes.

“We just sat in the car crying,” Stephen said.

“We just sat in the car crying.”

Finding Closure and Keeping Perspective

The fast-moving Almeda fire, fueled by gusty winds and drought conditions, torched the towns of Talent and Phoenix as it hopscotched its way along the Highway 99 corridor near Medford, destroying nearly 3,000 homes and buildings, killing three people, and displacing thousands of residents.

Volunteers sift through ashes on burned properties throughout Jackson County.

Volunteers sift through ashes on burned properties throughout Jackson County.

Soon after the fires were extinguished, Samaritan’s Purse deployed a Disaster Relief Unit to the area to help hurting homeowners rake through the ashes to salvage personal belongings.

This past Tuesday (Sept. 29), a team of volunteers sifted through the burnt debris of Stephen’s townhouse. One of the items they found was a white stone cross that was now broken into five pieces.

“I love this cross,” Stephen said as he reassembled the fragments. The precious keepsake was a centerpiece in their home that they looked at daily to remind them of their faith in Christ. It’s what brought them from thousands of miles apart to be together. Stephen, from South Africa, met Deaven on a Christian dating site. After a year-and-a-half, he proposed. He then moved to Oregon where he met his fiancée face-to-face for the first time. A week later, they were married and moved into the townhome.

  • Volunteers pick meticulously through the ashes at Jackson County properties.
    Volunteers pick meticulously through the ashes at Jackson County properties.

“I can’t thank you guys enough,” Stephen told the volunteers. “What you guys found is great. I’ll take it to my wife and maybe we can get some closure.”

After the volunteers departed, Stephen walked through the burnt rubble of his home and put things in clear perspective.

“All of this stuff would burn up one day anyway,” he said. “Our true riches are in heaven.”

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Treasures Found; Salvation Assured

Over 1,700 of the residential structures that burned to the ground in the Almeda fire were mobile homes. One of them belonged to Paula Vessels.

Paula Vessels shows volunteers through the burned remains of her home as they search for treasured belongings buried in the ashes. She is hopeful they'll find, among other valuables, military medals belonging to her late brother.

Paula Vessels shows volunteers through the burned remains of her home as they search for treasured belongings buried in the ashes.

Paula moved into Totem Pole Trailer Park in Talent, Oregon, in 2014, after surviving cancer and retiring from work in San Diego. Her daughter Cheney and her brother Rick lived on the same street in the park.

“We were in denial when the fire came,” Paula said. “We didn’t think we were going to be affected by it. We saw the smoke and the helicopters and the planes and thought they’re going to put it out.”

But soon police arrived and told everyone in the park that they had to immediately evacuate.

Paula quickly packed a small bag of clothes, scooped up her medications and dog, and fled, although she didn’t believe the fire would come close to the trailer park.

“We thought we’d be coming back,” she said. “And we did come back and this is what we found,” she said pointing to the charred twisted metal that was once her roof. It lay mangled atop the seared frame of her mobile home. “It was devastating.”

The three dozen mobile homes and RVs in the park were all incinerated, along with several cars that were left behind. Pink fire retardant stains now cover much of what’s left in the area.

Volunteers recovered a number of military decorations at Paula Vessels' property belonging to her late brother and father, including a Bronze Star, Purple Heart and World War II dog tag.

Volunteers recovered a number of military decorations at Paula Vessels’ property belonging to her late brother and father, including a Bronze Star, Purple Heart and World War II dog tag.

When the Samaritan’s Purse volunteer crew arrived at Paula’s property this week, she told them that among the things she most wanted them to find was the Bronze Star and Purple Heart that were awarded to her late brother Mike who served two tours of duty in Vietnam.

As the volunteers sifted through the ashes, two Billy Graham Rapid Response Team chaplains arrived and asked Paula about her faith. She told them she accepted Jesus Christ as her Lord and Savior when she was a child. She then pointed to her brother Rick McFadden, 66, who was standing nearby and said, “But he hasn’t.”

The chaplains shared the Good News of the Gospel with Rick and, with tears streaming down his face, he prayed to receive Christ, one of the 35 individuals who have given their life to the Lord in the first 11 days of this Samaritan’s Purse deployment. Paula’s many prayers for her brother had been answered.

And her prayers to find the Bronze Star and Purple Heart were also answered. Volunteers uncovered the two precious medals and returned them to the grateful siblings, who hugged each other and cried joyful tears when they saw them.

Chaplains shared the Good News of the Gospel with Rick and, with tears streaming down his face, he prayed to receive Christ.

Chaplains shared the Good News of the Gospel with Rick McFadden and, with tears streaming down his face, he prayed to receive Christ.

“It means a lot for us to have these,” Paula said. “The two things I most wanted them to find, they did.” The volunteers also discovered her late father’s dog tag from World War II.

Paula and Rick were overjoyed with the work the volunteers did.

“I am overly pleased,” Paula said. “They found more than I expected.” But what she really appreciated was the caring and respect she and Rick experienced from the team.

“They cared about us,” she said. “I’m just so thankful that we were led to them.”

Newly born again Rick agreed and summed up the day best when he simply declared, “What a day! What a day!”

Please pray for the thousands of people who lost most everything in the Almeda fires and for our volunteer teams who are serving them in Jesus’ Name.

If you would like to volunteer, go to spvolunteer.org for details.

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U.S. Disaster Relief Samaritan's Purse mobilizes and equips thousands of volunteers to provide emergency aid to U.S. victims of wildfires, floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, and other natural disasters. In the aftermath of major storms, we often stay behind to rebuild houses for people with nowhere else to turn for help.

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