Lessons From the Fire – A Written Reflection by Vanessa Houk

Time stopped. This is not the first time I’ve experienced that, but I’ve never gone through it, collectively with so many other people. Now we have “before” and “after” and everything is somehow sorted by that design.

In the last minutes before time came to a screeching halt, I said goodbye to my husband Jason as he was leaving for his volunteer shift, and sat on our bed putting a puzzle together. Our cat, Fat boy jumped up there and curled up near me. At one point Max the cat came in and stepped on the puzzle board, looking out the window and I petted him and he darted away.

I had a couple of online sales that needed to be packaged up and after 15 minutes with the puzzle I stood up to pack those items up. I left them on our front porch so they could be loaded in the car and dropped off at the post office. UPS delivered a package I was expecting and it was some things for our daughters, a Disney Monopoly game and a Star Wars skirt. Grace was on zoom, because it was her first day of 9th grade, but she came out in between classes and I showed her the package.

It was all so perfect. Presents arriving on the first day of school and plans to go to the Tuesday growers market as soon as Jason returned. The girls shared a room in our little home, so Madison took a nap on the couch next to the pile of clean laundry that I hadn’t sorted yet.

And then suddenly everything changed. We heard about the fire, three miles away from home. Jason called me and we talked about how it was a good idea to have a bag packed “just in case” and how he would be home right after his radio show at KSKQ.

I got off the phone and stepped into the kids room, interrupting G’s class and told the kids we were getting ready to evacuate if needed. We ran around the house collecting things and placing them on the porch. Our late son Dylan’s box, Grandpa’s hat, the backpack I took to Australia. The kids each grabbed a handful of things and they had the foresight to put their stuff in purses. While they were finishing, I went outside and watered in front of and around our trailer, as much as I could.

Jason called again and I could see billows of grey smoke rolling in on us. He could see that it was burning towards us. We were talking via speakerphone when I heard him yell, “you have to go, right now!”

The kids and I were on foot. We ran past everything that we had piled on the porch, only pausing long enough to open up the living room window so the cats could get out. We ran towards the creek, towards the community garden. Towards where we had the SOJwJ van, and Granny’s broken down car was parked. We saw a few stunned looking neighbors and a state trooper. I ran to the trooper and said, ” I have two kids and no transportation, what should I do?’

“You’re in the only green area I see. Stay right here.”

Jason was still on speaker phone. He was down the street frantically trying to get to us. An officer stopped him at the end of the street. “I live over there,” he waved his arm towards the park. “I have to rescue my family.” Flames were heading towards us, near three gas stations. He could see that.

The officer looked at him as if there was nothing that could be done. As if whatever was going to happen, would happen uninterrupted.

Meanwhile we were told to get into the cars that were near us, that we would caravan out and that no matter what we saw or how close the fire was, drivers were to keep going. The girls and I hopped into a neighbor’s car. A minute later we were told that plan had changed and we needed to go out on foot. The group of neighbors headed out together and we wound up in the grassy field in front of the park. We could see homes catching on fire around us. The wind was coming directly at us and the smoke was so thick that I told the girls to flip their bodies and take breaths of cleaner air as we moved along. We held clothing up over our face to minimize the harsh air.

We got to the green strip of field and stayed there. When a neighbors home caught fire right next to us, we moved further into the burnt grass, being careful not to step on hot spots. The wind kept blowing towards us and we could see flames in every direction.

Somehow two more unmarked law enforcement vehicles arrived. I could see them crossing the field towards us. The only thing I managed to carry out of the fire other than the clothes on my back was our family emergency box that held our passports, marriage certificate, cash and other important documents. I had set that down on the ground near us and the wind suddenly blew it open. A dozen papers flew around the field and my neighbors helped me grab them.

That movement placed us directly in front of the first officer who was loading his vehicle. We piled into the back seat with a neighbor. Grace sat on my lap.

At the end of the street Jason could intermittently hear me on the phone. He heard me say that we were in a law enforcement SUV headed to the Expo.

I was in shock. I remember suddenly hearing sirens and I didn’t know that law enforcement had lights and sirens on until my neighbor said something about it. I was a lot calmer than I ever imagined I would be in this situation. I am fire phobic. I can’t even light a match.

Time stopped and yet here we are. Five more minutes, a few more gusts of that terrible wind and I don’t know that this would still be my story to tell.


About seven hours later, Jason texted me a photo of a a pile of crushed and melted metal, a burned up home. I was horrified. I remember thinking, “Why are you sending this to me?,” and then I noticed the remains of what used to be a fountain in front of our home. “It’s gone,” he texted. The sunset in the background illuminated the smoke that still filled the mobile home park. The girls and I were trying to get back to Ashland and had found a ride with our state representative Pam Marsh. She found me at the Expo and asked what she could do. “Please just get us out of here,” I begged. We had spent hours watching disheveled looking people walk through the doors, carrying pets in carriers and on leashes and every time I heard someone else’s pet making noise, I died a little bit more on the inside.

Pam drove back roads through Medford, trying to get to Ashland and we could see the devastation throughout Talent, where many buildings were still actively on fire. We were turned around by law enforcement officers a couple of times, and eventually we were able to get onto I-5 south, towards Ashland. At exit 19, we could see that our neighborhood was gone.

For many days after the fire, our elderly and blind next door neighbor was missing. We thought he died. A forensic team moved the large pieces of the metal rubble of his home onto ours and they placed yellow police tape around the perimeter of his space. They searched the lot for anything that resembled bone fragments and placed what they found in a pie tin on the ground. Meanwhile our neighbor was located in an area hospital. He had evacuated himself and somehow made it to Bear Creek where he sat in the creek for three hours until he was finally rescued. The officers and forensic team abandoned the park. The rubble remained as they left it, the yellow tape blew in the wind. The metal pie tin filled with bones was left behind. Like many of our neighbors, he moved out of state shortly after the fire.

For several weeks after the fire, every time I closed my eyes I heard the sounds of sirens wailing. I tasted smoke. We wore the signs and scents of the ashes and smoke and it took several attempts at trying to do laundry before some of those smells started to fade. Jason and I visited the park several times a day for nearly two months, calling for and searching for our missing cats.

Before the fire, we kept our kitchen window open and it was missing the screen. Our cats jumped in and out at will, and sometimes strays wandered in as well. One had been coming in for food and sometimes crashing on our couch. We called him Goblin, although I had repeatedly announced that we had to find him another home. Goblin was found by a good samaritan the morning after the fire and was taken to a local veterinary hospital where he spent about a month being treated for multiple third degree burns on his face and paws. After the fire, he became a permanent member of our family.

On the evening of the fifth day after the fire, we were walking through the mobile home park again and I was calling for the cats. I had always used a specific clicking sound that they were all used to hearing. They knew it meant “get home, now!”. I carried a tub of their favorite cat treats, shaking it as I walked around. There were still areas of the park that were burning. The smoke and ash filled the air as we stepped over and around downed power poles and sharp, rusty, burned pieces of metal. There were skeletons of burned out cars throughout the park, and as we neared a corner and came upon one of those vehicles, I saw something dart in my peripheral vision.

“Kitty, kitty, kitty,” I said softly as I tried to make the clicking sound, but my throat was so dry from the smoky air that it barely came out of me. At first we couldn’t see anything, but we froze and waited. Fat Boy sat behind the tire, looking right through me. I sat down in the ashes and began about an hour long process of helping him remember who we were– family he’d known since the day he was born. Eventually he came over to me, meowing and head butting me. Fat Boy survived that horrible fire, unhurt other than the trauma he absorbed over those long days.

We went back looking for Max daily for months, but so far there’s no sign that he survived the fire. I hold out hope and still call out for him every day at the park.

Our two pet ferrets perished in the fire.

This is not the first big trauma I have survived, and I’ve learned that healing happens slowly. Day by day, little by little, we continue to live this beautiful heartbreaking life. We pay attention to everything that’s good. Sunsets. Celebrating the trees that survived the fire. We studied the colors of the orange poppies on the hillside of the home we purchased in the same park, a home we stared at while we were being evacuated. Like us, it survived. Like us, it’s still standing. We find beauty in the ashes.