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Walls, Fences, and Doors

by Wally Clark on 2020-10-15T11:08:30-07:00 | Comments

Libraries and communities: who would have ever thought that the fires of September 2020 would bring us together in such a meaningful way? That we could go forward, building relationships instead of walls, placing doors in fences in ways that would allow us to engage with people in ways we never could have imagined before?

I went looking for a car at a dealership in Ashland on a Thursday afternoon in early September. I found something that I liked, but I told the salesman, a nice enough fellow, that I would think about it overnight. And I did. I woke up the next morning and went off to work via our local public transit. I was happy to take the bus - it suited me, and was a good alternative to owning a car. I called the salesman that afternoon, told him I would keep looking. He was gracious about it, and told me he would keep an eye out for a good used car for me. Meanwhile, a friend of mine set up an appointment for me to see a vehicle across town that upcoming Tuesday. Okay, great, I thought, I was being taken care of and provided for.

Sometimes you just know when you need to put off an errand. I woke up Tuesday morning with the blinds banging close by my head. I took a look outside and, sure enough, a good, stiff breeze was blowing out of the south. I checked the weather page online and what I read was ominous: the humidity index was down in the low single digits and the temperature was forecasted to be over one hundred degrees. It was not a good day to look for a car.

Many of you have your own stories about the Almeda Fire and how it roared through our region and our lives the day after Labor Day, September of 2020. Many areas of the Rogue Valley along Bear Creek were devastated that day, with the towns of Talent and Phoenix taking the brunt of the destruction. I couldn’t leave Talent that day because my car was out of commission and friends couldn’t get in to fetch me due to traffic concerns. By the time folks had stopped using my porch as an observation post, I managed to miss all rides out of Talent. So instead of leaving, I had to sit out the fire. I stood on my porch, bags at the ready, and watched the clouds of smoke billow ever closer, fretted as the fire worked its way up the highway and Talent Avenue until I couldn’t watch anymore. A walk up the block in the dark and through the smoke put me even closer into harm’s way, so I returned to my blacked-out house, the warm campfire glows and raging flames lighting up the porch. In the end, I made my way up to the middle school and slept on the sidewalk in front of the entrance, my bags as my bed, and waited for dawn or the Apocalypse to come find me. I got lucky that night. The dawn won.

I tell this story because like so many other stories I’ve heard since that night - ones laced with panic, peril, trauma, and heroics - it was the innumerable stories of sacrifice, kindness, unconditional love, and a sense of community that truly lit up my life. So many people were affected, and yet, they never seemed to stand alone. From the outset, first responders got into action. Rescue vehicles, helicopters, planes, and fire engines were on the scene, doing their best to keep the fire under control without water in the mains or power to light up the night. Police and other local and state agencies came in to help get people to safety and keep the roads open. The Expo was set up: food, water, beds, and all manner of supplies were made available almost immediately, given to those who left town in a headlong panic, which gave them a place to settle down and take stock while the situation made itself clearer.

I walked back to my street that morning and found my home still standing. I don’t know if there was ever a time in my life where I felt so thankful. My walk through the town later that morning had me double down on that thankfulness: and while, sadly, many homes and businesses were razed, our community library was still standing. Talent mobilized into action immediately. It amazed me to see how fast help rolled in and how many people responded to the needs of their neighbors. It took a day, but by Thursday I had been gifted a steaming cup of coffee, a camp stove to use, fresh water to drink, and a hot meal or two to supplement my thawing food supplies.

On Thursday the water main was repaired and operational, and folks from out of town were reaching out to me via phone offering me a bed to sleep on. By Friday, neighbors offered the use of their generators to power up my phone. I stayed put in Talent that first week because there was no getting out, but more because neighbors and the community, hunkered down as we were, all did their best to make sure we were all taken care of. By the weekend, power was restored and I had a vehicle to use, which meant I could do my part and give back to the community by getting back to the library to help work with parents and children who had been affected by the fire in ways greater than I could ever imagine.

I am thankful that our libraries were all left standing, that we had power, water, and air conditioning to help people get out of the heat. I am glad that we had computers for folks to use so they could look up agencies to secure the paperwork they needed to speed up their recovery process. I am overwhelmed by the outpour of generosity from the community that has helped us to get books and toys into the hands of the children affected by the fire through our JCLS Fire Relief Donation Drive. I am happy knowing we were part of a network of resources that were in place to refer people to other agencies to help the recovery of the community along, but more, I am beyond pleased that folks could come in and just have a place to relax, reflect, and pull themselves together after such a long and arduous period of trauma.

Jackson County Library Services prides itself on its ability to take care of people in all manner of ways. After the impact these local fires made on our various communities around the region, we found ourselves once again redefining the role that libraries play in the county. I am a fortunate man in that I didn’t suffer in the ways that so many of my neighbors did, but I am thankful that I could be part of a library that was there for the community in one of its most trying times, and will be there while our communities go forward and help rebuild the towns affected by the fires of September 2020.

Here are some books to help you collaboratively build safe, healthy, and sustainable communities here and around the world.


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