Two years ago this week, the Almeda and South Obenchain fires ripped through Southern Oregon, destroying large sections of Ashland, Talent, Phoenix and Medford.
The fires displaced thousands of people, many of them Latino farmworkers.
That December, according to officials, only 1% of fire victims had been resettled. Many were homeless. Thousands lived with family and friends. About 550 were in hotels. Others had left.
At the time, locals feared that farmworkers who couldn't find permanent housing would move away, rupturing Southern Oregon's agricultural economy.
Two years later, the Capital Press followed up to find out what has actually happened since the fires.
Southern Oregon has made significant progress in rebuilding. However, many farmworkers did move away, though the exact number is unknown because of inconsistent migration tracking.
"I know some farmworkers did move because housing wasn't available right away, but I don't have the stats," said Elise Higley, board president at Our Family Farms, a Jackson County nonprofit that has helped farmworkers rebuild their lives post-fire.
Dagoberto Morales, director of UNETE Center for Farm Worker Advocacy, estimated that since the fires, Southern Oregon has lost about 20% of its farm workforce.
Many fire victims could not find new housing fast enough.
"It's a very slow recovery," said Morales.
Morales said some workers also left because the region was festering with illegal marijuana.
Drought, he said, is another factor driving workers away. He explained that some drought-stricken farms are producing little to no crop for workers to pick.
Local farms confirm that some farmworkers have left the region.
Harry & David, one of the area's largest farm employers, said 102 employees lost homes in the Almeda Fire. Kathleen Waugh, Harry & David's spokeswoman, said that half of these employees are still with the company, the majority of whom have found new housing.
However, Waugh said, "some of the impacted employees did leave the valley to be closer to their support networks — families, friends — as it was hard to find housing."
Another Medford-based orchard company, Naumes Inc., said the Almeda Fire burned the homes of 30 employees. Of these, Mike Naumes, president, said 20 stayed with the company while 10 left the area.
Annie Eadie, Naumes Inc.'s chief financial officer, said public generosity helped the company retain workers. After the fires, people donated about $100,000 to Naumes Inc. to help dislocated employees.
The company gave the donations to farmworkers who had lost their homes to the fire.
"We appropriated it to the very last penny," said Eadie.
Laura Naumes, Mike's wife and company vice president, said that although Phoenix and Talent have done "a remarkable job of getting housing re-established," the area still has a shortage of affordable housing.
"There's still a need," she said.
Dee Anne Everson, CEO and executive director of the local United Way, said Southern Oregon has made strides in rebuilding, but recovery is slow and "uneven."
"We have a long way to go," she said.
According to Brett Holt, regional spokesman for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, 76 fire victims still live in FEMA-provided manufactured housing units in Jackson County.
FEMA's trailers were only supposed to be there 18 months, but because rebuilding has been slow, Holt said the state coordinated an extension until March 15, 2023.
Recovery has also been expensive. Holt said officials approved nearly $28 million for FEMA to spend in Jackson County helping fire victims over the past two years.
Higley, of Our Family Farms, said one positive is that some farmworkers who stayed now have opportunities to buy homes. They were previously renting.
Joan Thorndike, a grower at Le Mera Gardens, a local organic flower farm, said that although some workers are OK physically, the fires left emotional scars.
"A lot of people are better off if we measure well-being by having a new house or trailer, new clothes, new car," she said. "But one thing that's really poignant to me is the remaining trauma."
Thorndike described how, on a smoky day this summer, one of her employees panicked. She had lost her home in 2020 and was afraid it might happen again, said Thorndike.
"I hope there's never a fire again," said Thorndike. "But you can't know that."