Post-fire ministering in Oregon focuses on 60 member homes destroyed, 356 families from 1 ward displaced

PHOENIX, Oregon — Deni Goodwin’s superpower has always been teaching Sunbeams in Primary and small groups of struggling kindergartners at work.

That’s also her comfort zone.

“I’m an introvert,” she said. “I only knew people in our ward if they had a 3-year-old.”

If her school district offered her an executive position, she would turn it down. That’s why the bishop of the Bear Creek Ward in the Medford Oregon Stake sat on his impression to call her as the ward’s Relief Society president. He knew what he would be asking.

“I would have been happy teaching Sunbeams till I died,” she said.

Bear Creek Ward Relief Society President Deni Goodwin is emotional as she speaks to journalists while delivering food orders to families in Phoenix, Oregon, on Monday, Sept. 21, 2020.
Bear Creek Ward Relief Society President Deni Goodwin is emotional as she speaks to journalists while delivering food orders to families in Phoenix, Oregon, on Monday, Sept. 21, 2020. Credit: Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Bishop Steven Burt eventually extended the calling to Goodwin. When he did, she expected the idea of accepting a large share of the responsibility for the ward’s 358 families would make her want to vomit. When it didn’t — to her surprise — she accepted the calling, despite her discomfort.

Two weeks later, disaster replaced discomfort. The rampaging Almeda Fire forced 356 of the ward’s families to flee their homes; Goodwin’s family was among the evacuees. When it was over, flames had damaged or destroyed the homes of 50 families in the ward. A fallen tree damaged a 51st home.

Everyone needed help. Goodwin’s job was to provide it. But how?

‘It just doesn’t seem fair’

Wildfires are normal in the Rogue Valley. This year isn’t normal.

A fire streaking right through the center of four cities was an unimagined horror, but that’s what the Almeda Fire did, surging directly up the valley’s spine, the Bear Creek Corridor. Bear Creek is a tributary of the Rogue River, famous for salmon runs and whitewater rafting. The sleepier creek runs parallel to both I-5 and Highway 99. So does the beloved Bear Creek Greenway, an 18-mile bike and pedestrian trail.

The fire began in a field after a dry summer. Dry, whipping winds propelled it up the greenway through the towns of Ashland, Talent and Phoenix to the border of Medford.

The valley’s residents spent Sept. 8 on the run. Goodwin slept in a strange bed that night, happy for the shelter and wondering, like thousands of others, whether her home would be standing when she woke up. The fire damaged or destroyed 2,357 homes at last count.

The sun sets through smoky skies over Medford, Oregon, and the Rogue Valley on Monday, Sept. 21, 2020.
The sun sets through smoky skies over Medford, Oregon, and the Rogue Valley on Monday, Sept. 21, 2020. Credit: Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

“Survivor’s guilt is a thing,” Goodwin said this week as she stood and cried outside a member’s home after delivering two gallons of milk and other groceries from the Medford Bishops’ Storehouse to a family with COVID-19. She also brought a loaf of homemade bread that she carried cradled in her elbow like an infant.

“Every time we leave our house and drive through all that …” she said, pausing while her mind plays back scenes of homes burned to their foundations. “We have a house to come home to. … It just doesn’t seem fair.”

A spreadsheet to minister to them all

The Bear Creek Ward’s first priority was making sure everyone was alive. Reports of missing members alarmed the ward council, but ministering brothers and sisters swiftly confirmed everyone was alive.

The second priority was finding everyone a place to stay in the Rogue Valley, which already faced a housing shortage. Goodwin and her counselors, Yumi Nelson and Celia Rivera Neeley, quickly began to compile lists with their special problem-solving weapon, Alison Allen, the compassionate service leader. The amount of information was overwhelming, so Nelson’s husband created a Google Sheet for the Relief Society.

Sister Keslee Green, a missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from Hanford, Calif., helps a woman find the right kind of baby formula at a distribution tent for donated supplies at the Jackson County Expo in Central Point, Oregon, on Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2020.
Sister Keslee Green, a missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from Hanford, Calif., helps a woman find the right kind of baby formula at a distribution tent for donated supplies at the Jackson County Expo in Central Point, Oregon, on Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2020. Credit: Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Soon, the entire ward council was both updating it and relying on the spreadsheet. It became the confluence of all of the ward’s needs, fed by reports from ministering sisters from the Relief Society and ministering brothers from the elders quorum, as well as all the resources of the community and the Church at all levels, from the ward to the stake, the North America West Area and Church headquarters.

When the ministering program was stretched to its limits because many of those assigned to minister had themselves lost homes and were among those most in need of ministering, Medford Oregon Stake President John Clason asked other wards to provide “stake ministers” or “stake shepherds” to the Bear Creek Ward. Volunteers were plentiful.

The devastation wasn’t restricted to one ward, either. An additional 10 member families lost homes in the Medford stake. The neighboring Central Point Oregon Oregon Stake opened one of its buildings as a Red Cross shelter, said Frank Grant, a counselor in the stake presidency.

“The Red Cross was overwhelmed. You expect the Red Cross would have cots and food at the ready. It didn’t, not for an event this size. So we called Church members. Within 10 minutes, people were dropping off mattresses and food.”

The women soon added highlight colors to the spreadsheet. Yellow represented a damaged home while green indicated those displaced but able to return home eventually. Purple specified families who need groceries. Pink alerted everyone to an immediate need.

Immediate needs piled up fast:

Bear Creek Ward Relief Society President Deni Goodwin and Alison Allen, the organization’s compassionate service leader, left, show journalists a color-coded spreadsheet they’ve been using to track impacts of the Almeda Fire on Church members while standing outside the Bishop’s Storehouse in Medford, Oregon, on Monday, Sept. 21, 2020.
Bear Creek Ward Relief Society President Deni Goodwin and Alison Allen, the organization’s compassionate service leader, left, show journalists a color-coded spreadsheet they’ve been using to track impacts of the Almeda Fire on Church members while standing outside the Bishop’s Storehouse in Medford, Oregon, on Monday, Sept. 21, 2020. Credit: Spenser Heaps, Deseret News
  • Power was another priority. The tireless elders quorum president, Don Anway, and many others didn’t have any for a week or more. A call went out for generators. People from all over the stake loaned theirs. One Bear Creek Ward member, Brandon Clark, hooked up generators for about two dozen families.
  • One man lost his prosthetic leg when his home burned to the ground. A stake shepherding brother arranged an appointment to order a replacement.
  • Someone offered an apartment for a family, but it was a mess. Allen made a call and 20 minutes later, missionaries were there, cleaning it out.
  • When families returned to homes that survived the fire but lost power, their refrigerators were full of rotten goo. Blood from defrosted meat filled freezers. Sometimes, where power had been restored before families returned, the goo had frozen again. The Relief Society launched teams to rove the ward and help clean out fridges and freezers. Another ward created the Almeda Angels and offered similar service to the broader community.

The Relief Society soon started additional Google Sheets, including a laundry page, a list of housing opportunities, a place to track donated household items, a page for vehicle needs and donations, a stake shepherd page and a spreadsheet of community resources.

A place to stay

The wind spurring the fire up the Bear Creek Corridor whipped at 30-45 mph, fast enough to keep the smoke it carried moving low and fast, far ahead of the flames.

That threatening herald motivated many people to evacuate. Ricardo and Dinora Navas, members of the Medford Seventh Spanish Branch who migrated to the United States from El Salvador in 1995, described the smoke as very black.

“We were terrified,” Dinora Navas said.

They scooped up their grandchildren and left their prized home, a nice, double-wide trailer in Phoenix, Oregon, they moved into a year ago with their daughter and her children. The trailer was a palpable symbol of the family’s hard work and of a new start after a move from Los Angeles, said their daughter, Lucy.

Lucy Navas tries to get her children, Allison Contreras Navas, 6, and Christopher Contreras Navas, 7, ready to leave their new apartment so she can go to work in Medford, Oregon, on Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2020. Navas, her two children and her parents lived together in a mobile home that burned to the ground in the Almeda Fire. Now they are sharing a two-bedroom apartment provided by a fellow member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Lucy Navas tries to get her children, Allison Contreras Navas, 6, and Christopher Contreras Navas, 7, ready to leave their new apartment so she can go to work in Medford, Oregon, on Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2020. Navas, her two children and her parents lived together in a mobile home that burned to the ground in the Almeda Fire. Now they are sharing a two-bedroom apartment provided by a fellow member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Credit: Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

The Navas, who joined the Church in 2015, prayed through the night that their home would be spared. The next morning, they learned it was gone. Lucy was upset.

“It was a really nice trailer,” she said of the home they had re-painted and re-floored.

Their insurance company put the Navas in a hotel for the first few nights. Then Bear Creek Ward member Jan Houston offered an apartment to the Navas with no deposit down, no rent for the first month and half off for the second month.

“Wow,” Lucy Navas said in English. Then, through a translator, she added. “I’ve learned a lot about being loved. I’ve learned a lot about the Savior’s love for us.”

Sitting in the front room of the new apartment under a painting of Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem provided by another Church member, she continued.

“I have learned that He moved many hearts to help us,” Lucy Navas said. “I felt bad for being upset with God when I saw how He blessed us. I learned that His voice and that message that He loves me doesn’t always come from heaven. It also comes from the people around us. That is what I’ve wanted more than anything, to know that I’m not alone and that God is with me.”

Sister leaders

Church leaders in Oregon said Bishop Burt, Anway, Goodwin and other leaders and members demonstrated their faith and wisely leveraged the time-tested and inspired structure of the Church’s organization and welfare resources to help members and others in the communities of Talent, Phoenix and Medford.

Sisters Misty Pantle and Tammy Johnson get their first look at the burned remnants of the home they shared with Pantle’s three teenage children in Talent, Ore., on Saturday, Sept. 19, 2020. Their home was one of more than 2,300 residences destroyed when the Almeda Fire swept through the towns of Talent and Phoenix in southern Oregon.
Sisters Misty Pantle and Tammy Johnson get their first look at the burned remnants of the home they shared with Pantle’s three teenage children in Talent, Ore., on Saturday, Sept. 19, 2020. Their home was one of more than 2,300 residences destroyed when the Almeda Fire swept through the towns of Talent and Phoenix in southern Oregon. Credit: Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

A total of 125 Church members’ homes have been damaged or destroyed by wildfires in California, Oregon and Washington, a Church spokesman said. Church headquarters has delivered or scheduled 11 truckloads of food to food pantries along the West Coast.

Goodwin, the former Sunbeam teacher, woke up in that strange bed the day after the fire and went to work. Her home was spared, but she and her husband stayed with her sister-in-law for five nights because power was out in her neighborhood.

For two weeks straight, she started at about 6 a.m. and worked on the spreadsheet and meeting the needs reflected on it until 10 p.m. Or midnight. Or sometimes later.

The work was consuming.

“I had to set an alarm to make sure I ate,” she said, looking away as if time spent eating might let down the families in her care.

On the second day after the fire, the Bear Creek Ward spreadsheet had 136 families on it — some 200-plus fewer households than local Church leaders were to contact and confirm the status of member families.

“We needed 358, so we decided to divide and conquer,” said Allen, the compassionate service leader. “We got 10 women together and started making calls. In three hours, we went from 136 families contacted to 338. We had less-active families emailing us back saying, ‘Just so you know, we’re home, we’re safe, we’d like to help.’”

Goodwin and Allen were an inspiration, said Elder David Wright, an Area Seventy, of the two Relief Society leaders.

“That’s the perfect combination of a woman with all the resources, Alison, and a woman who perfectly understands this population. Deni really understands the people here,” he said after meeting with them.

Goodwin said she was grateful for the trust Elder Wright, President Clason and Bishop Burt put in her presidency.

Leonard Sander holds a charred Book of Mormon found in the burned remnants of his home in the Medford Estates neighborhood of Medford, Oregon, on Monday, Sept. 21, 2020. Sander’s home was one of at least 2,357 homes burned in the Almeda Fire.
Leonard Sander holds a charred Book of Mormon found in the burned remnants of his home in the Medford Estates neighborhood of Medford, Oregon, on Monday, Sept. 21, 2020. Sander’s home was one of at least 2,357 homes burned in the Almeda Fire. Credit: Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

“Area, stake and ward leaders told me to do what I needed to do and to be generous,” she said. “That’s been really helpful. … It’s much easier to know they’re just trusting what I’m doing and not have to check in about ever detail. We received a large cash donation and turned it into gift cards we could distribute easily. When we needed more groceries, Elder Wright arranged to have the Bishops’ Storehouse open more frequently.”

“It’s absolutely phenomenal what they’ve been able to do as a new Relief Society presidency,” Medford Oregon Stake Relief Society President Heidi Blue said. “When they led out like that, the ward followed.

“The Church has set up its organization and has taught us and trained us to serve the Savior’s sheep. They did it right. They were discipleship at its best.”