As Wildfires Rage, Mutual Aid Builds and Strengthens Community in the Rogue Valley

An interview with Siskiyou Rising Tide

By Lilia Letsch

Most people on the US West Coast are painfully aware that this summer has given rise to a really intense and tragic wildfire season. Even though temperatures are starting to cool, at the time of writing this there are still at least 42 major wildfires burning in California, Oregon and Washington. A few weeks ago, during a historic wind event, the Almeda Fire started on the edge of Ashland, Southern Oregon, where I live. It was one of the smaller wildfires that have burned on the West Coast this year, but it hit a very densely populated area and ultimately burned down over 2,300 mostly low-income homes and displaced roughly 3,000 people in the Rogue Valley. 

We know these fires are being exacerbated by climate change, but it also goes beyond rising temperatures, and involves interactions with the myriad of pressures on native plant communities (e.g. logging and highly flammable non-native plants), the removal of seasonal Indigenous burning practices from the landscape, and the lack of social services that could help avert some of the accidentally or intentionally-lit fires. There are so many issues at play, and so much at risk, it all feels really overwhelming and hard to digest. When one of our local climate activist groups Rogue Climate lost their office in the Almeda Fire, it was a stark and symbolic reminder for me as to how much harder this struggle will continue to get.

Witnessing and being involved with mutual aid projects in response to events like wildfires and the COVID-19 pandemic is one of the few things that grounds me and keeps me feeling like there is something to fight for – and I know I’m not the only one. Mutual aid – when people take responsibility to care for one another and change political conditions by building new social relations that don’t rely on the state or the non-profit industrial complex – has been garnering increasing awareness since the COVID-19 pandemic began. Mutual aid projects and networks are popping up all over the country. Here in the Rogue Valley there has been an incredible mutual aid response to the displacement of people from the Almeda Fire. I sat down with the good folks at Siskiyou Rising Tide (SORT) to learn more about their involvement with local mutual aid efforts and the challenges that are being faced in a community fraught with some very intense social and political divisions.

Agency: Thanks for taking time to answer these questions during what I know is a very busy time for you. To start, can you share a bit about how and why Siskiyou Rising Tide (SORT) emerged as a group?

Siskiyou Rising Tide: SORT formed in 2015 to fight against the proposed Pacific Connector LNG Pipeline – which, if constructed, would run through Southern Oregon and five major watersheds, including the Klamath, Rogue, Umpqua, and Coquille rivers and the Coos estuary. We are a volunteer-run, non-hierarchical group focused on direct action and climate justice. We value direct action as well as other community organizing strategies, and we’re down to kick it with all kinds of people and organizations so long as we can be ourselves. In the No LNG Coalition we’ve been able to bring things like our knowledge around security culture, a willingness to call-out so-called progressive politicians, and our love and connection to the places that would be destroyed by the pipeline. We value decolonization and Indigenous sovereignty, and we support a climate movement that centers Indigenous voices.

Agency: Siskiyou Rising Tide has been very active in the mutual aid response to the Almeda Fire in Southern Oregon – can you share a snapshot of what that work looks like on the ground?

SORT: Disasters like the Almeda Fire unfold in stages. In the immediate aftermath of the fire, it was important to drive around the county, to get a literal understanding of what was happening on the ground – where are evacuees congregating, what do they need – things like that. Mutual aid sites emerged in multiple locations and we were involved in supply drives, gathering sleeping bags, blankets, tampons, water – whatever people needed, we would gather and redistribute. We are also one of five organizations on the steering committee for the Rogue Valley Relief Fund. The weekend after the fire, we worked with other organizations on the relief fund to help distribute nearly $5,000 in Visa gift cards to Latinx folks who had lost their homes. Being scrappy and down put us in a position to be really responsive to different logistical needs that came up.

Agency: Did you foresee that mutual aid work would be an element of Siskiyou Rising Tide’s mission when the group was founded?

SORT: We’ve always valued mutual aid but it wasn’t a major focus until last year, when someone gave us a rather large donation. We had to decide what to do with the money, and we figured it was good to give a lot back to the community. We started the Siskiyou-Klamath Community Action Fund to offer $500 grants to support social and environmental justice organizing throughout the region. We prioritize groups that don’t have access to mainstream sources of funding, and have given grants to support everything from a zero-to-low-cost herb clinic to prison abolitionists responding to COVID-19 outbreaks within Oregon prisons.

When the pandemic hit, we provided a lot of support to folks doing mutual aid within our local houseless communities. We were making our own hand sanitizer for free distribution, and we’ve supported efforts to hold the police accountable for their mistreatment of houseless folks throughout the pandemic. The pipeline is on hold, at least for now, so it’s been a good time to shift our work toward emergent community needs and organizing.

Agency: The community response to the Almeda Fire has been really inspiring in many ways, but there’s also been some tensions with police and white supremacists harassing mutual aid efforts. How has Siskiyou Rising Tide and other collaborators been tackling these issues?

SORT: It’s been intense. While our towns were still burning, rumors flooded social media that “Antifa” and “BLM” lit the fires. When it’s not Antifa or BLM, they blame houseless people. It’s hard to keep up with the rumor mill these days, there’s so much disinformation out there.

A cool thing about mutual aid right now is that a lot of the folks we’re currently working with are people we got to know over the summer, people who’ve been out in the streets protesting in defense of Black lives. Right after George Floyd was killed, there were thousands of people who took to the streets in Medford. Most of them were zoomers and millennials – teens and young adults – and we were like, holy shit! Where did they come from? Despite having organized here for many years, we had no idea our towns were filled with rowdy kids ready to throw down for love and justice.

More recently, when the militia dorks found out a bunch of people who happen to believe that Black lives matter were doing mutual aid down at Hawthorne Park in Medford, they came to threaten and intimidate us. They circled us with their trucks, took pictures of our license plates, walked through the mutual aid camp carrying guns, and said all kinds of wacky stuff on social media. There were intense moments but at the end of the day, we couldn’t stop them from coming around to check it out. Well, fine. Come see what we’re up to – we’re feeding and sheltering people in the middle of a disaster zone. There’s no hidden agenda. I mean, we think that white supremacy and capitalism are evil but we’re open about that – no secrets here!

The police, that’s a whole other issue. They’ve engaged in a war against houseless folks for many years, and that won’t stop until we have total abolition.

Agency: Southern Oregon is well known for its right wing and white supremacist militias – have you had to deal with these issues in your climate justice work before the Almeda Fire?

SORT: Yeah, definitely. But things really escalated after George Floyd was killed. Right-wingers were waving guns at people and driving their trucks into crowds! Some of the newer organizers are still getting death threats, trucks circling around their houses late at night, stuff like that.

What’s really changed though is the strength of our own networks. There’s been a fundamental shift in community power, and a new generation of organizers and activists are throwing down for the cause. There’s no going back on that, as Sam Cooke sang, a change is gonna come!

Hawthorne Park Mutual Aid

Agency: The Hawthorne Park Mutual Aid hub was a really amazing collaborative effort – what are some of the different groups that came together to make it happen, and can you share any examples of how collaborating together has been building long-term community capacity.

SORT: Since the fires displaced so many people, folks have done everything they can to survive – sleeping in their cars, in fields at the local high school, whatever it takes. Meanwhile, there have been these incredible supply drives and community efforts to share resources throughout the community – so really, Hawthorne Park was just another example of that. When the fires started, a lot of people who live along the Bear Creek Greenway got burnt out or had to evacuate. Hawthorne Park was an obvious place for people to take refuge, but anyone was welcome there. There were people who’d lost their mobile homes staying there too, along with a handful of otherwise housed folks who camped out to help keep things running smoothly.

In terms of the different groups, Hawthorne Park has always been a place where street folks hang out, and there’s been various outreach efforts there over the years. One particular group was doing daily feeds there for the past three weeks – a loose network of folks who know each other through protesting for Black lives – but there are other rad groups doing street outreach, cop watch, and sweeps response in Medford for many months. There’s also the mutual aid networks that have been going on since the pandemic, plus crews of people who know each other through environmental justice work, stuff like that. Essentially, we had an open collective working together like an ecosystem, without any centralized leadership. It was amazing!

In the past few months, there’s been a fundamental shift in how our communities hold power, which is why, at the end of the day, the police raided the park. Mutual aid is disruptive. We were running a mutual aid camp that did not rely on police to resolve our issues, and that’s scary for the city. They’re afraid of what can happen when houseless people are treated with dignity and respect. If we took seriously our most marginalized community members, we would have to understand why they were so ostracized and demonized in the first place. We would have to face hard truths about things like capitalism and white supremacy.

At the park, we lived and worked together for two weeks. It was a liberatory space, and now we know that’s possible. One of the best things to come out of this experience is a deepening of our own relationships – we learned a lot about our friends, their strengths and weaknesses, and we know how to build together going forward.

Agency: As you mention, the Hawthorne Park mutual aid camp was raided by the Medford Police Department on September 22. Can you share a bit about what led up to the raid, how it played out, and what your plans are for continuing the mutual aid work in the face of this repression?

SORT: The camp was targeted because of the perceived demographics of the people staying there. On the one hand, you had people claiming that the camp was full of people from out of town. Right wingers actually thought we enlisted the “Antifa buses” to bring in houseless folks from Eugene, San Francisco, wherever. On the other hand, you had people who thought the folks staying there were just taking advantage of the fire in order to, I don’t know, get a free sleeping bag?

The truth is, the raid was the latest example of the city’s war on poor and houseless communities. There were a hundred tents at the park, and the police got worried. In the midst of a disaster zone, this humanitarian aid camp began to model an alternative to the existing houseless shelters – which work for some people, but not everybody, and are usually full anyway.

Rather than see it as an opportunity to encourage, they came and destroyed it. They sent a couple dozen police officers to raid the camp, and arrested eleven people. They targeted houseless folks, volunteers, and even a member of the press.

It’s classic state repression, and it’s also symptomatic of the war on houselessness. Every time the police come in and demolish houseless encampments, their goal is to disrupt and destroy the communities that exist there. It makes organizing difficult – how do you build relationships and trust while people are living in a war zone? – but not impossible. Our communities hold tremendous power, and our work is rooted in justice and love. There’s no stopping that!

NOTE: Members of Hawthorne Park Mutual Aid have since filed a civil lawsuit against the City of Medford for “unconstitutional and inhumane treatment” after Medford Police raided and cleared the Hawthorne Park camp.

Agency: It’s still early days in the mutual aid response to the Almeda Fire, but I’m wondering if you have any “lessons learned” already that you think might be useful for other people dealing with climate disaster impacts in their community?

SORT: The new lessons are probably old ones. We weren’t there but a few of us know old stories from Common Ground, the collective that emerged in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and I find myself thinking about that space a lot these days. When the fundraising efforts started, our networks reached out to disaster relief friends to hear about their financial models, and that was really helpful.

The biggest lessons are about keeping your head together. When the shit hits, sometimes it’s best to chill a bit – make sure you’re thinking clearly, otherwise you’ll waste a lot of time and energy running in circles. Remember that you aren’t going to be able to support everyone, so get clear on what your skill sets and capacities are, and stay away from drama.

Don’t worry too much about whether you’re “qualified” to help or not – sometimes the best folks are just ordinary people who rise to the occasion. It’s hard to address disagreements in ad hoc, open collectives. Watch out for militias, and don’t talk to cops!

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