'We're the lucky ones'
Deanna Waters Senf only lost almost everything in the South Obenchain fire.
She can’t say why her home is still standing after losing six other structures on her property in the 5600 block of Butte Falls Highway, but she knows why her five goats, four llamas and 13 chickens are safe: Because of the kindness of a Jackson County sheriff’s deputy and two strangers.
“They didn’t have to do that,” Waters Senf said. “They could’ve told us, ‘You screwed up hippies, your animals are dead.’”
On Sept. 9, one day after the South Obenchain fire ravaged Waters Senf’s home, she returned to the evacuation point with no plan beyond loading her Subaru Forester and her husband’s 1980s Mercedes diesel sedan with the livestock that had survived the fire.
A sheriff’s deputy, however, made the call that connected them with trailer-pulling good Samaritans Diana Schneider and Chris Gervasi.
Schneider said she needed approval from the sheriff’s office to be on Butte Falls Highway that day, and she remembers at times hopping fences in the area, watching for downed power lines and — after the animals were loaded — checking nearby properties for bodies. Other than Waters Senf’s home, none in the neighborhood were still standing.
“It was crazy,” Schneider said. “It was like watching a bad movie.”
Gervasi, whose son is in Schneider’s 4-H group, drove up the mile-long driveway and helped collect the goats and llamas and picked up the chickens any way he could get a handle on them.
When plans to put the chickens in the cabs of their trucks weren’t working, Gervasi pulled out a gas can and helped jumpstart a beat up station wagon on the farm.
Waters Senf called the car a makeshift “mobile chicken coop on wheels.”
“They had no qualms about risking their lives to come and help someone out,” Waters Senf said.
For Gervasi and Schneider, the call to help Waters Senf was one of too many animal rescues to count between Sept. 8 and Sept. 12. Gervasi’s wife and Schneider’s mother and sister worked to coordinate livestock rescues across the Rogue Valley during the Almeda and Obenchain fires.
“All I could think about is all the people who didn’t have help,” Gervasi said.
Gervasi and Schneider described joining up with other locals they’d never met before, and never had the chance to meet during the fast-paced rescues.
“I might cross paths with them again, I might not,” Gervasi said.
Gervasi only moved to Southern Oregon earlier this year, and had never seen a fire season in the valley before. The fires missed his house on Salt Creek Road, and his hemp farm by only about 30 yards.
“It missed those by the grace of God,” Gervasi said.
Schneider said her family did what they could because they knew all too well how it feels to lose livestock. On March 29, 1996, the Schneider family lost 56 pigs and six horses in a barn fire on Ball Road, according to Schneider.
“We know what loss is,” Schneider said. “Animals, they can’t do anything unless we help them.”
Getting her home back to a livable condition for herself and her husband — let alone for her livestock — is months and tens of thousands of dollars away.
Waters Senf cooks on a camp stove, has no running water and much of what’s left of her farm is hazardous rubble. Despite all that, she says, “We’re the lucky ones.”
“Our neighbors have lost everything,” Waters Senf said.
As of Wednesday, fire officials had counted 33 houses and 56 other buildings destroyed in the south Obenchain fire — a small fraction of the thousands of homes and hundreds of businesses destroyed in Talent and Phoenix in the Almeda fire that broke out the same day — but Waters Senf fears that the Butte Falls area damage estimates are understated. For instance, Jackson County’s Fire Damage Assessment website still shows her property as “unaffected” in the South Obenchain fire.
“They’re not including elements of rural living,” Waters Senf said.
The fire took out her crops, garden, farm equipment, workshop, two livestock huts, a mobile home, much of her fencing, her natural gas lines and the pump house for her well system.
Waters Senf said just repairing the pump at the well head and the power box will cost about $18,000. That doesn’t include the contents of her pump house — water tanks and a filtration system — which is now nothing but rubble and concrete foundation.
Another concern is a lack of internet in the area.
Waters Senf said she and her husband get by with a Verizon unlimited data plan, but many others in the area rely on CenturyLink for landline phone and internet. Her neighbors have heard estimates of two months before their service can be restored.
A spokesperson for CenturyLink parent company Lumen Technologies was unable to confirm that restoration time frame Friday, and provided the following statement:
“Due to the numerous fires throughout the state of Oregon, and the extent of damage to the CenturyLink network, our engineer and technical teams continue investigations and are working with state and local authorities to restore services as quickly as possible.”
Waters Senf said her next steps involve “navigating the bureaucracy” of FEMA, the Small Business Administration and her insurance, but she draws strength from the kindness of the people who surrounded her and her husband during the fire.
“Times like these, the worst or the best in people really comes out,” Waters Senf said. “The people we had around us, the best came out of them, and we’re really lucky to have that.”