When There Was Fire; We Discovered Fish.

In the late summer, early fall of 2020, Southern Oregon became a disaster zone due to a grass fire that started in Ashland. The fire destroyed most of the two towns, Phoenix and Talent, and left thousands of families homeless. Half of the city of Medford was evacuated. My family was part of the evacuation. This is my attempt at telling the story of how the fire changed me. I am far from a professional fisherman. Novice would be too high of a rank but, when the smoke lifted and the destruction became clear, I was reunited with my love of fishing. 

September 8th, 2020, started off as just another day at work in southern Oregon. Six months into the COVID-19 pandemic, I was still trying to get used to the new normal. That morning was a bit more windy than usual; gusts were up to 25, some reported 50 miles per hour at times, but at 11:03 am, a fire started that would change our lives.  

Looking to the south end of the valley, the smoke had begun to rise in the distance near Ashland. It was still pretty windy but, we are used to fires and smoke in the Rogue Valley come late summer and early fall. In only a couple of hours, winds from the south had blown the smoke from Ashland into the Medford area. At this point, I was beginning to get chatter from fellow workers about the fire from what they heard on scanners and news sources. This was a severe fire burning out of control.  

The news I was hearing was hard to comprehend, hoping most of what was being reported through social media was a rumor. Stories of buildings that were no longer standing, the number of people who didn’t survive, and the possibility of the fire being an act of arson. The only news report that was confirmed, the name, the Almeda fire.  

As the day progressed, the smoke became thicker, the smell was eerie. The burning rubber from tires and what was probably burning insulation filled the valley with an indescribable odor. News reports began to fade, leaving social media the only source of information. This proved to be a challenge as so many people were mentioning contradicting stories. One would say this building burned to the ground, and another would say that building is still standing. This was such a chaotic time that understandably, there was going to be a lot of confusion.  

Later in the day, around 3 or 4 pm, I was home with the family in southwest Medford. The smoke had consumed the entire sky, and the wind was still gusting strong. We relied on scanner apps on our phones to get information, what little was coming out. The local news agency was not helping much due to the mass confusion in the valley. The reporters also had families to worry about. We were getting word that Phoenix and Talent were evacuated, but nothing about our need to prepare for evacuation. I can remember thinking that we know there is a fire to the south of us though, there is no way this fire can make it to us.  

That evening, around 6:45 pm, I got ready for bed; I am an early riser for work. There was a knock on the door. It was a neighbor telling us the sheriff is evacuating the neighborhood and to leave now. I was in disbelief, so I put on clothes, went outside to find the sheriff in our driveway told everyone to go now. Never did I get a notification of level one, two, or three. This was just a “GO” order. So we rushed to grab what we thought was important. I took a quick video of the contents of the house and my wife and son, “grab the guns, ammo, and cash.” 

We decided to head to Grants Pass to stay at our daughter’s house, but first, I had to get to my parents, who live close to us. My wife, son, and dog were in one vehicle, ready to leave. I told them to go, and I will meet them after making sure the parents (in their 70’s) are good to go. When I went to my parent’s house and informed them of the evacuation, they didn’t believe me. My mother went to the TV and turned to a local channel to find an episode of the game show Jeopardy and no details about evacuations. I don’t recall being a Kyron crawling along the bottom of the screen with local reports. My parents didn’t want to leave and didn’t want to impose on the family in Grants Pass. With two cats to take care of, they felt it would make it complicated. I suggested we meet in the remote forest town of Ruch and we will make a plan there. This would keep us off the freeway that we heard was jam-packed due to the other evacuations. Scanner chatter had mentioned that people stay off the roads to keep them clear for the evacuees. Before I could head to Ruch, I had a couple of items to take care of at the office first.  

It was about 9:30 when I arrived in Ruch and found my parents sitting outside at a table of the Indigo Grill. A few other diners were there, and the reasonably large parking lot was essentially empty as the other businesses were closed for the day. Finally, I was able to sit down at the table to take a breath and digest the events of the last couple of hours.  

My parents decided they were going to sleep in the parking lot with the cats. This didn’t sit well with me. While enjoying a couple of beverages from the grill, we talked about options and noticed the parking lot was starting to fill with vehicles. People had the same idea as we did. Soon the parking lot was overloaded, leaving only street parking for those still arriving. At this point, the lady who owns the Indigo Grill came to our table to inform us her restaurant usually closes at 10 pm but that she and her staff would be staying open all night. This was mainly to ensure that all of the evacuees who consumed the parking lot, planning to sleep in their vehicles, would have bathrooms to use inside the restaurant. She said they will be serving food and beverages until they run out of inventory. That was the moment Indigo Grill was added to the list of heroes of the Almeda fire. Eventually, my parents met up with some friends and decided to stay in an RV on the friends’ property.  

A little past 11 pm, I was on the back roads to Grants Pass. A drive that would take 30 minutes any other day had me down to 25 miles per hour, and 75 minutes later, I was at my destination. The drive was bumper to bumper with cars in front of me, looking for the next available spot on the side of the road to pull over and presumably set up camp for the night.  

Reunited with the wife and son, it was time to get some sleep. Easier said than done. There was no sleep for me. In all, maybe an hour or so, I was able to fall asleep. Most of the night and early morning, I was on the scanner app trying to follow along and get the details on the path of the fire. I recall thinking to myself, if someone told me there would be a fire 13 miles away from our house and 8 hours later I would have to leave the house, I would tell them to go fly a kite. Finally, the sun was coming up, and I felt the need to return to town. 

What was I going to find in the morning after I drive back to Medford? Would our neighborhood be reduced to ashes and chimneys? I would find out soon enough that we were among the fortunate to have suffered no losses from the wildfire. A few homes in our area reported looting, but the fire was stopped about a mile and a half away. When I arrived home at 6 am the following day, the sound of silence was deafening. With no power and water and no one around, it was eerie. The sky was surprisingly clear. Smoke was mainly gone, but that would all change in a few hours. There was another fire, the South Obenchain Fire, about 12 miles away, in the northern part of the valley that started about 2 pm the same day as the Almeda fire.  

Power was restored afternoon, and there was a boil water advisory after the water was restored. Then the smoke from the Obenchain fire began to fill the valley. It was then time to take in the reports of damage from the Almeda fire.  

The superintendent of the Phoenix-Talent school district, where my son attends high school, reported that they estimate more than 50% of the student body had lost their homes. More than 3,200 acres had burned, including 3,000 structures which left more than 3,000 people without homes. A few of the affected were close school friends of my son, and a few were even closer pals on the basketball team. It was decided that school would be canceled for a week, maybe a little longer, I don’t recall. After a few days, I could sense this was hitting home for my son. He and his classmates had just witnessed the most tragic event of their young lives. A distraction was needed.

Before the fires that fall, my son had expressed interest in fishing. We went a few times to some spots I would fish when I was in my late teens. As the summer was coming to an end, we had caught a handful of trout, and I think we were both looking forward to the next summer break to do it all over again. Why wait for summer?

A week after the Almeda fire, it was a Thursday; I asked my son if he’d like to go fishing. This time I had a river spot in mind that maybe can produce a steelhead. We grabbed our fly rods, mine much dustier than his, and off to the Rogue we went.  

It was still quite smokey. We were the only two on that section of the river, a couple of warm-up casts and fly casting felt natural again. Four or five casts in, then bam, Fish On! I had myself a decent little fight and eventually landed a 19-inch steelhead. This was much easier than I remember; my son is definitely going to catch something nice today. Well, so much for that. 

We fished for another three hours and had some bites but never brought anything up. I figured I was just lucky, the smoke had driven everyone else off the river, and we were the only two not smart enough to stay indoors, so the only artificial flies around were ours, and I got lucky. I recall likening it to Forest Gump and Bubba when their boat was the only one to survive a hurricane. All the shrimp were up for them to grab. We were just in the right place at the right time. Not to worry, we would come back the next day and try again. 

Well, the next day came, and we hit the water, the same spot. Maybe my sixth cast in and BAM. Another fish on. It was a slightly smaller steelhead this time, but it gave me hope that my son would bring one in today. At the end of the day, it was not so for him. So, we would go again the next day. Then again, the day after that and the day after, then the day after that one. Over the next 21 days, we missed only two days of fishing.  

Eventually, he caught a summer steelhead. We explored the river up and down, searching for the perfect spot but, we would find ourselves returning to the place it all began a week after the fire. Something about how the water curled around the bend, making a calm pool that if were a fish, I know that is where I would rest. That and it is where I caught two decent steelheads. So we continued to fish. Stepping up our games to the two-handed Spey rods. I initially teased my son about it, telling him that it isn’t really fly fishing; two-handed is for the weak. I found Spey casting to be quite exciting and challenging. Still haven’t caught a thing on my Spey rod. Caught my shoulder, my ear, and my hat more than any other part of my body. My son hasn’t had a catch on his Spey line either but, he makes it look so effortless. 

To this day, we haven’t gone more than a week or ten days without fishing. When my son assembles his Spey rod and wades a foot or two into the water, takes some line out, and then starts his casting motion. It is like watching a symphony conductor’s wand moving above the water at an even tempo, of which in my head there is my own music following along. How does he do it? Is that because he is young and retains information better? Because he spends hours at night watching YouTube videos on Spey casting? Probably both. For me, I just need more practice.  

I am a golfer. Primarily self-taught, watching golfers on TV when I was a kid and telling myself, “I can do that.” There is a similarity between Spey casting and golf, tempo. It must be perfected. Something else I found to be shared in golf and Spey casting, the execution. When I execute what I think is and feels like the perfect cast, it has to catch a fish. I mean, come on, ten horrible casts and nothing, then comes one when everything just felt great, easy, the rod did all the work. The line flies out perfectly and right where I want it but, nothing. Well, that’s golf, er, fishing.  

It was something I had to tell myself, you can hit a great golf shot, and it doesn’t go in the hole every time, hardly at all. Then, a golf shot can never leave the ground, hit off of three trees, skip the pond, roll through the trap, hit a ball mark on the green, sending it another direction, and plop; it’s in the hole. It’s not fair, but it is fun.  

Over the last nine months, I have had more fun trying to catch fish with my son, who turned 17 yesterday, than I have had in a long time. This doesn’t mean I haven’t done anything fun recently, or ever. I really appreciated the time we get fishing together. Sometimes I selfishly think about what I will do when he is done with high school and off to wherever it is he is going. Enjoy the time we have now. We even got my wife out to fly fish as well as one of the older boys. It’s a family affair. 

From the ashes of the Almeda fire sprouts fresh starts, homes are being rebuilt, the grass grows back in once blackened fields, and one boy’s joy of fly fishing has been received by another and taken to new heights.