Smoke from the approaching Almeda fire is visible Tuesday afternoon behind Spiegelberg Stadium in Medford. The stadium is used by North and South Medford high schools. (Photo courtesy of Medford School District)
Howling winds and devastating fires on Oregon’s west side have closed schools already struggling to open while dealing with a pandemic. At least three dozen school districts have been affected by the fires or power failures from high winds fueling the blazes.
In 2020, “unprecedented” doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface. On Wednesday, Level 3 “leave immediately” fire warnings had been issued in Clackamas, Douglas, Jackson, Lane, Lincoln, Linn, Marion, Washington and Yamhill counties. Gov. Kate Brown has declared a state of emergency and warned Oregon is facing its greatest loss of life and property from wildfires.
The Almeda fire, which started near Ashland on Tuesday afternoon, roared north toward Medford on the first day of virtual classes for the Medford School District.
“It was horrendous,” said Natalie Hurd, the district’s communications and public relations specialist.
To the north of Medford, the South Obenchain fire forced evacuations in the Eagle Point School District on Wednesday. Eagle Point School Board Chair Nita Lundberg said fires have touched nearly every school community in southern Oregon.
“We’ve never had our entire area on fire at one time, with cities burning down,” she said. “As if COVID wasn’t bad enough, now we’re facing mass devastation.”
Eagle Point is not scheduled to start classes until Sept. 14, but it will be difficult to start with utilities out and families’ having lost everything.
School leaders have shifted from educating to helping their communities survive.
On Wednesday, much of the city of Medford was on evacuation alert. School was canceled through the end of the week.
“We know that our staff and families … are trying to seek refuge from these fires,” Hurd said. “We have staff and families who have lost their homes.”
The district is providing community aid. It has opened an emergency meal site and is looking at opening more as well as an emergency shelter, Hurd said.
“We’re pouring our resources into food and shelter,” she said.
Hurd said it will be difficult to reopen distance learning with much of the area lacking internet or electricity.
School staff will also have to find their students. Before the fire closed schools, the district was still trying to connect with all its students remotely. Now they will be even harder to reach. Many students are in hotels or shelters or have left the district for safety.
Medford was also reaching out to the Phoenix-Talent School District just to the south. The Almeda fire destroyed much of Phoenix and Talent, along Interstate 5 between Ashland and Medford. The school buildings apparently survived, but hundreds of families have lost homes or been displaced.
A lot of the damage was in mobile home parks, with families who already needed the schools’ help, said Phoenix-Talent Board Member Dawn Watson.
“We don’t know how to get ahold of them,” Watson said. “We don’t know how to support them.”
School is canceled through at least Friday. The school buildings could potentially offer a haven for students while restarting school, but in-person classes would require state permission.
On Wednesday, Watson had 17 people from four families staying in her three-bedroom home.
Josephine Bolstad, a Phoenix High School senior, said she was just starting to accept dealing with distance learning.
“I don’t even know what to think happens next,” she said.
Bolstad said that with spring classes ending suddenly, no real summer and now this, the schools would really need to address students’ mental health. She hoped the school would have a slow restart and let students ease into the year.
Sophomore Julius Bolstad said it has become even harder to focus on school.
“You’re always thinking about what is going on outside of school,” he said.
The Estacada School District in Clackamas County started classes Tuesday. Families were told to evacuate Wednesday, and the whole county was put on alert.
“We were wanting our families to have a sense of normalcy and have a first day of school, and to have it end this way, it’s surreal,” said Communications Director Maggie Kelly.
Transportation staff helped evacuate a retirement community. The district opened its campuses for evacuees, offering snacks, water and rest breaks, according to Kelly. Schools are closed at least through Friday and the district’s priority is to get meal sites running again, she said.
The district is also trying to figure out how it can offer internet and stay connected with families who have lost their homes or had to flee the district.
“Our families have been through a lot this year,” Kelly said. “We just want to make sure they have the resources to get by.”