Simon Turner and his family had only lived in their home for a week. But after a wildfire tore through their Medford neighborhood, everything in that new home was gone.
Turner, his girlfriend Lensie Shaw, and their one-year-old daughter, Cordi, lived in one of the 4,400 homes that were destroyed by Oregon wildfires in 2020, and were among the 24,956 Oregonians who applied for assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the agency said.
On Friday, thanks to FEMA, Turner and Shaw will move into a temporary mobile home in a Central Point RV park, becoming the first of roughly 325 families in the Medford area approved for temporary housing after losing their homes to the Labor Day fires.
“That’s huge,” Turner said of the assistance. “It’s going to bring me and my family back together.”
Since the fire, Shaw and their baby have been staying with her family in Coos Bay, while Turner has stayed with friends in Medford to keep working, she said. Turner works as a drug and alcohol counselor, and recently started his own business doing photography, filmmaking and DJing.
That new career path had looked promising. At the onset of the pandemic, Turner started DJing live sets online, hoping to bring joy into the lives of people stuck at home. But the fire destroyed all of his new equipment, along with virtually all of the family’s belongings.
That’s left the young family to start from scratch, and for the last two months it’s forced Turner to spend time away from his daughter, who took her first steps in Coos Bay this fall. The temporary housing will be a stepping stone while they look to buy a new home together, he said, hopefully sometime soon.
FEMA spokesman Paul Corah said Friday that the housing is meant to provide a stabilizing first step for survivors as they get back on their feet. They’ll be able to live in the mobile homes for up to 18 months after the disaster — through March of 2022. Ideally people will be able to return to their property once it’s safe to do so and those who can’t move back will move on.
Corah said the mobile homes are particularly important in Southern Oregon, where there aren’t as many rental homes or apartments available. According to FEMA, more than 1,000 people in the Medford area have been living in hotels since September, many of whom will move into the temporary homes in the coming weeks.
“It’s a huge housing mission,” Corah said. “This is the very first step we need to take, getting the people back in the community thriving again.”
FEMA has previously rolled out the mobile homes for wildfire survivors in California, as well as people in other parts of the country displaced by tornadoes and hurricanes. The agency usually tries to find people housing close to their schools and family, Corah said, and typically uses the mobile homes as a last resort.
He added that there’s a chance they may need to be used more frequently in the future, as climate change results in more frequent – and often more devastating – natural disasters across the U.S.
“We’ve seen an increase in disasters across the United States,” Corah said. “Obviously this is the biggest disaster FEMA has ever seen in Oregon.”
Oregon wildfires burned more than 1 million acres of land this year and killed nearly a dozen people. Some who lived in the path of the fires just barely managed to escape, and many were only able to leave with a few belongings and the clothes on their backs.
Turner said they only had enough time to grab important documents and a change of clothes before speeding away to safety. And while they wouldn’t know the fate of their home for another four days, he said he had a feeling it wouldn’t be there when they returned.
“I knew when we were leaving the house,” he said. “Something told me, ‘Simon you’re never going to see this stuff again.’”
A U.S. Army veteran who served a year in Afghanistan, Turner said he drew on his military experience to get his family through it. There was no room for emotions, he said, only survival and the next step ahead.
He’s drawn on different experiences in the months since the fire, using the coping skills he teaches addicts as a counselor to focus on the positive. The fire has brought his young family closer together, he said, strengthened his relationship with Shaw and given them all a completely fresh start.
He said he prefers to focus not on the loss, but on the growth that’s happening as a result.
“You control your thoughts through how you look at things,” Turner said. “I’m choosing for things to get better from that fire moving on.”