MEDFORD, Ore. (KOIN) — After a week of immense loss, many in the Southern Oregon community are turning to faith to power through the tragedies brought on by wildfires. One church in particular has a unique understanding of what happened to the towns of Phoenix and Talent. It’s lead pastor, as well as many congregation members, have dealt with the trauma of wildfire before.
“I’m from Paradise, California,” said Pastor Lee Gregory. Yes, that Paradise—the Northern California town destroyed by the deadly Camp Fire two years ago. Gregory moved to Southern Oregon before the fire, but after it hit, he organized a CARE campaign to help his hometown.
“Since then, during that fire for the next six months, the Paradise Fire, we knew people would flood to the Southern Oregon area. Out of 50,000 people that were displaced and running for their lives, we knew some would eventually come this way.”
More than 150 families settled in Oregon’s Rogue Valley, including the pastor’s in-laws who lost everything to the Camp Fire.
As wildfires neared their new home just outside of Phoenix, they left before there was an evacuation order.
“[I] knew to get us out before the flames. I think if I had seen fire, it would’ve been more traumatic,” said Gregory. “We just knew the drill: get the suitcase, get the clothes, pick up the important papers, and out the door. In 20 minutes, we were ready to leave.”
Thankfully, their home was spared this time. But in the Medford neighborhood congregation alone, eight families have lost their homes, including Betty Jack, who fled with her Bible before her house burned down, and the church guitar player, Scottie Allred.
“I have to start over,” said Allred. “So, that’s okay. Everyone’s prayers is giving me strength. Like, I’ve got all my clothes…I’ve got enough clothes and food and what I need.”
Fred Smith, who lost his home in Phoenix, said he lost most of his possessions but managed to save his “military discharge and DD214.”
Pastor Lee also works as a school bus driver in Phoenix and Talent. His bus has since been repurposed to shuttle evacuees to the Jackson County Expo grounds. Along the way, he has preached simple messages to care for one another.
“The ones who are doing good deeds are smiling, the ones who are doing good deeds in the midst of their sorrows can make it to the next day,” said Gregory. “The one who is spending their life caring for the other person who is also hurting—the next thing you know, they look around and think, ‘I made it through this day, I’m not hurting so much.'”
Just as in Paradise, the towns of Phoenix and Talent will never be the same.
The death toll from Oregon wildfires currently stands at ten, including four from the Almeda Fire. That number is expected to rise since dozens of people are still missing.