At the Alameda Fire Relief Center, no one has to prove they are victims of the wildfire to get supplies.
The Fire Relief Center is a gathering of open-air, multicolor circus tents inhabiting half of the ground space of a small shopping center parking lot, erected after the Almeda Fire burned 2,600 homes in Oregon’s Rogue Valley. All items are donated and free to fire survivors. I was a volunteer there. Long plastic tables like the kind you’d see in community halls sit under the tents and are piled with food, toiletries, clothing, housewares, dog and cat food, baby food, diapers, kids’ toys, office supplies, small appliances like microwave popcorn makers, old silver candle holders, and chip clips.
Not all items dissolve into the anonymity of abundance—there is an ornate ceramic Thanksgiving platter with a raised picture of a turkey surrounded by a circle of potatoes and carrots accompanied by two ancient bone-handled carving knives. The arrival of brand new appliances sends out some kind of invisible energy and they are claimed almost immediately.
Towering over a check-in table is a life-size cardboard cutout of the fire relief center’s patron saint: Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, looking intent and determined in his World Wrestling Entertainment Just Bring It bald and tanned glory. Someone taped a handmade cardboard sign to Dwayne’s midsection proclaiming, “We are rock solid!” They also clothes-pinned a face mask, somewhat askew, over the lower part of Dwayne’s face—a reminder of COVID pandemic precautions.
A guy rivalling the size of Dwayne the Rock but wearing a black trench coat and a prosthetic leg is prowling the aisles between tables, filling a shopping cart near a table laden with canned goods precariously stacked on narrow shelves. “Where are the diced tomatoes?” he mutters to no one in particular. A nearby volunteer rushes in and helps scan the rows of cans, locates several diced tomatoes, and hands them off.
Miguel is coordinating the fire relief center from behind a small card table. No one has to prove they are victims of the wildfire to get supplies. He asks for signatures and gauges communication needs.
Miguel and volunteers near the parking lot entrance also screen donations as people drive in. Someone drives up in a small SUV filled with brand new baby car seats to donate. The donor digs out a framed poster like those used in offices to buck up uninspired employees that reads Follow Your Dreams. Miguel, thinking there is no room under the tents for something so frivolous, says, “No, we have no use for that.” The donor, looking disappointed, continues to hold it up. Several volunteers and I gather around and everyone is silently forming their own opinion. Miguel recants and says grudgingly, “Maybe we can put it up behind the kids’ toys.” A volunteer takes it to the Kids Section and starts to tuck it behind a book entitled Stowaway to the Mushroom Planet.
An older woman with one arm around a shopping bag of canned goods and draped clothes is turning over plastic toys. A volunteer notices her, holds up the poster and says, “Hey, look at this.” It piques her interest, and she considers for a moment. Although it belies utilitarian need, she asks, “How heavy is it? I’m on foot.” The volunteer hefts it a little and says, “Not much.” She says, “I think I’ll take that.”
The donations are not only loosely organized in sections but signed in Spanish and English: carrots/zanorias, milk/leche, baby food/comidas de bebe, pet food/comidas de gato y perro.
There has been a glut of clothing donations, so only winter coats are accepted now. A huge diesel truck with one guy in the cab lumbers into the parking lot. I get close to the cab window and the guy flicks the roll-down button. He is clutching a small clear plastic bag of what looks like colorful cloth balls wrapped by rubber bands. He explains, “It’s brand-new women’s underwear.”
“Unused,” he reiterates as I consult with the other volunteers. With further inspection it appears that the package has been opened. “No clothes accepted at this relief center,” we chime in.
The donations are not only loosely organized in sections but signed in Spanish and English: carrots/zanorias, milk/leche, baby food/comidas de bebe, pet food/comidas de gato y perro. A man crouches, looking through an ice chest of cold drinks next to the fresh food, chooses one, and rises taking note of my name tag. “Hola, Mary. Comó estás?”
I experience momentary panic rooting through my limited storehouse of Spanish and manage, “Estoy un poco cansada.” I am a little tired.
The man immediately turns toward me in concern. “Sick?” he says in English after a millisecond hesitation, also raiding his stash of little-used phrases. Realizing that working while sick is a big red flag because of the COVID pandemic, I immediately signal emphatically, “No, No. No puedo dormir.” I can’t sleep.
He replies, relieved, “Gracias por todo tu trabajo.” Thanks for all your work. And moves on.
At 5:00 p.m., volunteers offload dozens of small boxes of dinners donated by a local restaurant that in normal times claims to specialize in “marrying the traditions of old world cuisine with the food culture of Oregon.” For now, this means burritos and spaghetti with garlic bread in Styrofoam takeout containers. A young woman stops her shopping in the baby clothes section and comes over, towing her toddler daughter: “That smells good,” she says as she happily grabs a stack of dinners.
Mary Kwart worked for 30 years as a wildland firefighter, fire management officer, and wildland urban interface coordinator in California, Colorado, and Alaska. She is currently a volunteer wildfire risk assessor in Ashland, Oregon.
Header photo of a destroyed neighborhood following the 2020 Alameda Fire by Ahturner, courtesy Shutterstock. Photo of Mary Kwart by Jennifer Stewart.