Wildfire Provides Unusual Opportunity for La Clinica To Help Community

Wildfire Provides Unusual Opportunity for La Clinica To Help Community

By Julie Wurth, Communications Officer, La Clinica

We like to say that a big part of our role at La Clinica is to meet the community’s need. Never have we had a greater opportunity to do that than in this unusual year—first as we adjusted for COVID-19, and then in September, when a fire burned through two towns in our county, destroying thousands of homes and displacing more than 1,000 of our patients.

The Almeda fire, as it became known, scorched 3,200 acres in all, flattening large parts of the towns of Phoenix and Talent, home to about 11,000 people, and burning up to the fence surrounding our Phoenix Health Center at the edge of Medford. Four employees and a board member also lost their homes in the fire. Three people died.

A view of a destroyed mobile home park in the background with the melted fence of La Clinica’s Phoenix Health Center in the foreground. The fire burned right up to the retaining wall that separated the center from the mobile home park. You can see the top of the wall in this photo—the center sits a bit higher than the mobile home park. This photo was taken by Aaron Kelly, one of La Clinica’s IT employees.

This emergency offered us an unusual opportunity to help. The night of the fire, Jackson County emergency officials set up an evacuation center at the county fairgrounds, and by the next day mental health therapists from La Clinica’s school-based centers were on site to listen and support evacuees.

They were joined by staff who connected evacuees with resources and virtual medical visits as well as the mobile health center team, which conducted in-person visits. La Clinica sent another team to a middle school to conduct COVID-19 tests after learning that many people evacuated from Phoenix and Talent were staying with relatives in another part of the county. Dental teams offered quick-access visits for people who had lost dental appliances in fires. When a shelter opened at Phoenix Elementary School, medical and mental health teams began scheduling visits there. And, when the federal government set up regional resource centers, our resource support/virtual visit team joined in that effort as well. 

Raymon McDonald visited with therapy dog, Baylor, at the evacuation site set up at the Jackson County Fairgrounds. La Clinica had behavioral health staff (and dog) there, along with the mobile health center team, and people who were helping with community resources, and giving patients access to virtual appointments. Most of that fairgrounds work moved to other locations after the county closed its operations there (a Red Cross shelter remains). The mobile team is still out there with the Red Cross.

Some of La Clinica’s most important outreach during this time is happening inside our community health centers, where staff are reaching out to patients most at risk as a result of their losses, making sure they have support as the long process of rebuilding begins.

La Clinica’s leaders are thinking about staff at this time as well, aware that although most didn’t lose their own homes in the fire, many have been deeply impacted by losses among family, friends, and patients. Employees get regular updates about the situation, and all were offered the opportunity to take part in debriefing and counseling through the organization’s employee assistance program.

This month, a group of employees returns to Phoenix Health Center. Long La Clinica’s flagship building, it was in the direct path of the Almeda fire, and in the hours after firefighters finally got the blaze under control, many employees and community partners asked, “is it still standing?” We didn’t know until the following morning, when news came from someone who had hiked into the area, still closed because of spot fires, live wires, and explosion danger. His report seemed almost miraculous—the health center is untouched.

La Clinica’s Phoenix clinic, lower left center, surrounded by everything that burned around it. The road in this photo is Highway 99 (South Pacific Highway). You can see a lot of what’s to the left side of this photo didn’t burn—the center was near the northern edge of the fire, although it did jump further north in a few places. This is the screenshot from the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office.

The challenges of the Almeda fire have required us to be nimble and flexible as we look at how best to help. In some ways, though, this is the story of every community health center in our state every day—we answer the call, find the most significant needs, and care for our community with deep compassion and love.

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