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A Pastor, a School Bus and a Trip Through a Scorched Oregon Town

PHOENIX, Ore. — In a season that has seen fast-moving fires lay waste to millions of acres along the West Coast, perhaps no town has seen the destructive fury that leveled parts of Phoenix, Ore.

In the span of a few hours on Sept. 8, the Almeda Fire burned through large parts of not only Phoenix but the neighboring town of Talent, together home to 11,000 people. Local officials estimated that the fire destroyed nearly 1,800 homes and businesses.

The ruin was so widespread that a week later, the authorities still would not allow residents to return home to see what was left. For days, many of the displaced were forced to scrutinize bits of aerial footage for clues, while others hiked for miles to get around roadblocks.

Four days after the fire, a New York Times reporter stood in a Home Depot parking lot on the outskirts of town, trying to find a way in. The National Guard had blocked the main entry points, and the police were patrolling the streets for people who had sneaked in, worried about the danger of downed power lines and sinkholes.

And then a yellow school bus pulled up.

Behind the wheel was a burly grandfather in sunglasses and an orange reflective vest. He introduced himself as Lee Gregory, 63, a local pastor and school bus driver originally from, of all places, Paradise, Calif., the site of California’s deadliest fire. After creating a charity for his hometown when it burned in 2018, he now faced disaster in his new home. Within a day, he restarted the charity and threw himself into another relief effort.

“If you want to take a bus ride, you’re invited,” he said. “I can take you there. No one else can.”

The bus rumbled down Highway 99, the main thoroughfare in Phoenix and Talent that had now become a path through the wreckage.

Riding along was another passenger, whom Mr. Gregory had picked up two days earlier in the same Home Depot parking lot: Stuart Warren, a 35-year-old Phoenix councilman, who had been looking for ways to help constituents. The duo had since been carrying perishable food from powerless supermarkets and displaced families to evacuation shelters.

Mr. Warren did not seem like your average politician. He was a bearded fly-fishing guide with a duck-call ringtone who had moved to Phoenix in 2015 because he could not afford a house in his hometown, Ashland, Ore.

For decades, the town has been an affordable haven from the nearby cities of Medford and Ashland, offering cheap housing, an idyllic Pacific Northwest setting and access to medical care and jobs minutes up the freeway. That mix has attracted retirees on fixed incomes and farm workers who pick the sweet Comice pears from nearby orchards that end up in Harry & David gift baskets shipped around the world.

The Almeda Fire disproportionately hit those residents, wiping out about a dozen tightly packed mobile-home parks. Local officials and residents said that many homeowners in those parks lacked insurance, in part because fire did not seem to be a threat; they could hear the freeway from their bedrooms. And none of them owned even a slice of land; they rented the small plots where their homes once sat.

With such a financial blow, many of those people will struggle to return, and some said last week that they did not want to. For local leaders, it raises the question: Can Phoenix ever fully recover? And if it does, will it have a place for the people who once called it home?

“When this starts getting cleaned up, big money will come here and invest, just like they did in Paradise,” Mr. Gregory said. “These towns won’t be back the way they were.”

Mr. Gregory steered the bus past the Harry & David headquarters and toward the police checkpoint that marked the start of the burn zone. He smiled and waved, and a police officer waved the bus through.

Quickly, the earth was black on both sides. The bus passed pile after pile of rubble, some still with signs telling of what was once there. There was D & S Harley-Davidson, a motorcycle shop; the Rogue Action Center, housing a nonprofit group working on climate change; and Umpqua Bank, where the only thing left standing was the vault. “It gets worse every time,” Mr. Warren said.

Mr. Gregory began to slow down. A woman was walking alongside the road, in an area where she was not supposed to be. He tooted the horn, stopped and swung open the doors. “Ma’am,” he said. “Do you need a ride somewhere?”

She had been hiking back to the Home Depot. She climbed aboard, and Mr. Warren and the reporter hopped off.

Not far from where the bus stopped, a neon sign announced Royal Oaks Mobil Manor, a 55-and-older mobile-home park that was now a sea of cinders.

Sandra Nickerson, 78, a retired long-haul trucker, who had lived there, got on the phone from the evacuation center where she was staying to try to direct a Times reporter to her home. She held out hope that it was still there. Continue down the middle road, she said, “and take a left at the purple house.” Her house number was 61.

There was no house, no numbers and no purple. Everything was gray. “Well, OK,” she said.

Ms. Nickerson was a Phoenix lifer. She had attended the same brick schoolhouse as her mother. She recalled the Fourth of July parade, fishing on the Rogue River, and hot cakes and ham at the Phoenix truck stop. She had raised her family in Phoenix, while her husband drove a bus for Harry & David, shuttling farm workers to the pear orchards. She had planned to die there.

“I’d stay right there in Phoenix, if there was a place to live,” she said. “But there isn’t.” On Monday, her son picked her up from the evacuation center and took her north to Portland, Ore.

At her mobile-home park, each plot was a pile of ash, with a few identifiable items. Metal chair frames. A barbecue smoker. Hubcaps. A satellite dish. A melted patio chair floated in the pool. It was silent other than the distant din of the freeway and the chirping of birds perched on charred branches overhead.

Mr. Warren looked weary. “Trying to describe the destruction, really the only words I can come up with are absolute,” he said. “These folks’ homes. I mean, they want to come back to sift through their stuff. But there’s nothing to sift through.”

As for himself, “I’m tired. Really tired. But, you know, any time I take a break, my sadness gets worse,” he said, his voice breaking.

The mobile-home park next to Royal Oaks was largely full of immigrant farmworkers and their families, and it also burned. Before Tuesday, that park was home to David Pacheco, Ramona Curiel de Pacheco and their two sons. Now it was gone.

The couple, both Mexican immigrants, had built a life in Phoenix. Ms. Curiel de Pacheco, 48, baked cookies and cakes for Harry & David. Mr. Pacheco, who is disabled, helped care for their children. Eight years ago, they bought a mobile home in Phoenix. “We lived at ease there,” Ms. Curiel de Pacheco said in Spanish.

But they had no insurance and almost no savings. When asked how they were holding up, Ms. Curiel de Pacheco began to cry. “How do you think we feel?” she said. “Everything of ours burned. We couldn’t even get our children’s papers.”

She said she had no sense of where to go next, but she was clear about one thing: “I don’t want to live in Phoenix.”

Back on the bus, the road began to narrow, and Highway 99 became Main Street. Mr. Gregory slowed to a stop in front of four brick walls. It was Barkley’s Tavern, long the town’s lone bar, built in 1898.

“I was the bar chaplain,” Mr. Gregory said, getting out to peer in at the charred remains. “Like most taverns, a place where people found a lot of fellowship and friendship.”

Faint heat still radiated from the heap. Still identifiable was the kitchen, where they made the broasted chicken that Mr. Gregory loved, and the slot machines, which he did not.

The group kept walking, past the barbershop, the Judo academy and Puck’s Donuts — all destroyed. Next was the adjacent town of Talent, and a clearing that overlooked a hollowed-out subdivision. Mr. Gregory pulled over.

Everyone looked in somber silence for a moment. Below, two people rummaged by a hole where a home used to be.

Daniel Verner was searching for the box that held the ashes of his wife. She had died of cancer 11 months earlier, a tragedy that led him to leave Ashland for a new home in Talent. Now his wife’s Honda Accord was melted to the pavement out front, and he could not find her ashes.

Mr. Verner, 74, is a painter and musician, specializing in portraits and traditional folk music from around the world. He plays 15 instruments, and was angry with himself for grabbing only two when the police told him to flee. “I got my Greek bouzouki and my Irish bouzouki, but I didn’t get my Russian balalaika or my Turkish oud,” he said.

He was shaken up by the scene. “There’s still some part of my psyche that just goes into not believing,” he said. “I wish I would have grabbed some more. A few more.”

He was with Cherie Grubbs, 64, a retired nurse and his next-door neighbor. She was searching the rubble for mementos of her son, who was murdered in 2011, such as his guitar or Mother’s Day cards. Instead, she salvaged a lantern that her father had used as a signaler for the railroad, but not much else.

Mr. Verner cut his hand on the rubble, and they decided to go to the hospital for a tetanus shot. They had hiked in a mile, so Mr. Gregory agreed that they needed a lift. While walking, Mr. Verner and Ms. Grubbs said they were in a relationship, forged by heartache.

“We kind of shared this incredible, unbearable grief,” she said. “We kind of thought we paid our grief dues.”

The school bus rounded the corner, and everyone climbed on.

The next morning, Mr. Gregory delivered his first sermon since the fire had left 10 of his parishioners homeless.

Nearly 50 people gathered on the cushioned seats, few with masks. A five-piece band was on the stage, with Mr. Gregory’s wife, Doreen, on keyboard. Mr. Gregory paced on the carpet below, wearing the same orange bus-driver vest over his shirt and tie.

“We are going to cry out to God for help,” he said.

The band began to play and the room rose and sang: “We’ve been through fire. We’ve been through rain. We’ve been refined, by the power of his name.”

Mr. Gregory stood in front of his congregation again. “I want to take you on a journey,” he said, as aerial footage of Phoenix’s destruction began to play on a screen. “The Bible teaches you: You don’t always get to plan your journeys.”

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