Wildfire Survivors Connect With Community and Put Their Lives Back Together


Beatriz Gomez remembers the exact date. It was the morning of September 8, 2020— her birthday.

Her husband, Julio, who was working as a mechanic at a friend’s garage, was going to come home by 2 p.m. and they were planning on picking up food for her birthday dinner. Then, a neighbor called and told Beatriz to come outside their manufactured home on Phoenix Road in Medford.

“I went outside and saw the birds flying around. The neighbor said, ‘It is the end of the world.’ I said, ‘No, that is not going to happen,’” Gomez said.

As the day wore on, the wildfire smoke got thicker and the fire got closer, sirens broke out but were far away.

“I knocked on the door of my elderly neighbors and told them to get ready and put gas in the cars. The gas station was in front of the parking lot and it took a lot of work to cross there because there was a lot of traffic.”

She told her children, Julio Bryan, 18, Kimberly, 13, Ashley, 6 and Baruch 4, to gather one day’s worth of food, a change of clothing and everyone’s best shoes. She also got together their important documents. They put it all in a big, yellow bin. Her son, Julio Bryan, who is drum major for his school, asked if he could load his Xbox and instruments in the car but she asked him to only get his computer. He left his saxophone, guitar, electronic piano and trumpet.

“I told them, just the important things, because we’re going to come back tomorrow,” Gomez said.

Just as they were leaving at around 3 p.m., her husband arrived. It had taken him two hours for a normally 10-minute drive due to the traffic from others fleeing the wildfires. He drove through the orchards to get home to them. When he did get home, he didn’t have time to grab anything. He tried to go in the home to gather his tools and Gomez told him “No, there’s no time, take the dog and let’s go.” He took their dog, Tyson, and they all left together.

“If we waited one more minute we would never have gotten out,” Gomez said.

But where to go?

“We first met up at Fred Meyer North with my brother and some friends and headed to White City, but there was another fire there too,” she said.

They then drove to Grants Pass hoping to find a motel room. As they drove to Grants Pass, they got stuck on I-5 because the Table Rock fire had started.

“Ashley, who was only was five years old then, said to us, ‘Close your eyes, don’t look.’ We didn’t know if we were going to live or die. Fire was on both sides of the freeway,” Gomez said.

They had to sleep in their car in the hotel parking lot because there were no available rooms in Grants Pass. The next day, they went to Walmart’s parking lot. Gomez and her younger children stayed there and her husband, oldest son, brother and a friend went to check on their home.

When her husband came back, he told his family, “There’s no house. There’s nothing left.”

The family eventually went to The Expo center in Central Point.

“When we went to The Expo, it was really sad to see all of our friends and acquaintances. We didn’t know what to do or where to go. I can still see my husband siting on the grass, holding his dog with a hopeless look on his face but then, help started arriving and we saw all these clothes and pillows piled up. I didn’t understand what was going on at first,” Gomez said. “My sister-in-law told me ‘Come here Betty, let’s get something, maybe just a blanket,’ so I went to grab pillows and sleeping bags for each one of us.”

The Gomez family is only one of the many wildfire survivors still trying to rebuild their lives. At this time, there are 367 survivors, or 204 households staying in motel and hotel rooms thanks to the Oregon Department of Human Services, Office of Resilience and Emergency Management (OREM). Other families are staying with friends, family, or in FEMA trailers, according to Griselda Rodriguez Medina, Disaster Case Manager for Jackson County, OREM. She has been working with the Gomez family.

The community was there to help. For the first two weeks, the family stayed in the garage of one of her son’s friends. After that, Longer Term Secure, Short-Term Housing, which is made of Rogue Valley community volunteers, was able to get them a temporary home in Ashland where they stayed for a month and a half.

Then, a former teacher of her children connected them with a Jacksonville local church that helped the Gomez’ pay for half of the cost of an RV for the family. They lived at a Southern Oregon RV park supported by OREM for a year. OREM supplied food boxes and rent for the RV space. The family was finally also able to buy a lot in Medford where they now live. They moved their RV there temporarily until their manufactured home can be delivered. Although the lot needed a lot of trash cleanup and other work, it is a place where they can live and also have a car repair and mechanic shop.

The Office of Resilience and Emergency Management helped the Gomez family by assisting with the bids for a whole new pump service and portable toilets for their property. Both Gomez and her husband work every day on their property as they prepare to build a barn in which the husband can continue to work and also continue to prepare the land for their manufactured home which is due to arrive in a few months.

“Beatriz knows I’m here for her for emotional support. I was there to assist her as she moves forward in her recovery. I continue to check on her on a bi-weekly basis to make sure her needs continue to be met. We have brought forward resources to ensure that she and her family are feeling supported,” Medina said.

Gomez acknowledges and is thankful for all of the support her family has received.

“We were at a point we had nothing but so many people helped us — people who didn’t know us. At one point my husband said we need to give back. One of the things that happened is that the more we gave back the more things were going well for us. I tell my kids It’s not a question of just receiving, you always have to give back,” she said.

The Gomez family gives back in many ways. One of their children has dyslexia, so Beatriz Gomez helps other wildfire survivors whose children have dyslexia access resources and also refers them to support groups. She participated this last year in the weatherization program to ensure survivors homes and belongings were properly kept out of the elements and to ensure people stayed warm. Her son Bryan volunteers with the Rogue Action Center building beds for other people affected by the fires along with Talent Maker City. Her husband helps people who are having a hard time to repair their cars. He also repairs tractors and helps people move when they need the help.

“When we needed it, everyone came together and helped us. Now I can help others who don’t have money to get their cars fixed. I do feel good about helping people; if money weren’t an issue, I would fix everyone’s vehicle,” Julio Flores said.

And this experience has changed Beatriz Gomez.

“I feel that there was a Beatriz who existed before the fire who focused only on herself, her family and her work. Then after the fire there is now the Beatriz who thinks also about her community. It was something I had forgotten – to help the community and to advocate for people when they need it,” she said.

“I miss my former life, but things are better now because of the things I have gone through. It’s now about everyone else,” she said.

Her life has changed in other ways also. She now works only one day a week at a restaurant. The rest of the time, she helps her mechanic husband repair cars in their business named “Padre e Hijo Reparación de Autos” (Father and son Auto Repair). She also handles all the accounts for their business.

She knows there are still others who need help after the wildfires.

“Families still need help. We need to support each other. Some are afraid and don’t know how to ask for help. We could all use a little bit more empathy and so many need help to rebuild their lives.”

Read more at ODHS Facebook in Spanish: https://www.facebook.com/ODHSespanol.

About Author

Christine Decker is a Public Affairs Specialist for the Oregon Department of Human Services. Before working in communications she was a working journalist.

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