Hotels for those left unhoused by wildfires

As climate change ratchets up wildfire intensity, an Oregon program provides a step toward home.

Deep in the densely forested foothills of southern Oregon, near the town of Butte Falls, Lanette and Steve Martin lived with their son and his family — until last year, when a wildfire chased them away from their home. As embers the size of charcoal briquettes landed on their front deck, the retired couple and their family jumped into their cars, leaving behind five chickens and a cat. “If we’d waited another 10 minutes, we would have been engulfed in flames,” Steve Martin said.

That same day, Sept. 8, 2020, an urban fire fueled by hot, dry weather and strong winds tore through the nearby towns of Talent and Phoenix, in the Rogue Valley. Alma Alvarez, a migrant worker, was working about 15 miles away when the fire began raging toward Phoenix, where her two younger children, aged 10 and 13, were home alone. Alvarez rushed back to find the neighborhood already in flames. The family escaped with the kids’ birth certificates and their cat, but everything else was gone. That night, they slept in their car. “All we would think about was the fire and if it could come get us in our sleep,” Alvarez said recently, speaking in Spanish. The next night, they checked into a hotel, the first of many where they would stay over the months to come.

Alma Alvarez and her three children were among the first families to move into the Redwood Inn. Film still by Brandon Yadegari Moreno

The conflagrations, part of what were later labeled the Labor Day fires, killed three people and displaced roughly 8,000 in southern Oregon’s Jackson County. In mid-April, after bouncing between temporary homes for more than seven months, both Alvarez’s family and the Martins finally landed in the same place: the Redwood Inn in Medford, Oregon. This was no coincidence. The motel is part of Project Turnkey, a $65 million statewide initiative to convert hotels and motels into free housing for survivors of the September 2020 fires as well as other people experiencing homelessness. For Alvarez and the Martins, Project Turnkey offered much-needed stability — and a step toward a more permanent home.

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Working to inform and inspire people — through in-depth journalism — to act on behalf of the West’s diverse natural and human communities.

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