The Staff at the Jackson County Expo are some of the unsung heroes in the Almeda Fire.

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When Helen Funk arrived at the expo on September 8, she knew it was mowing day. Since COVID shutdown the expo in March, she had laid off maintenance staff and the job of grounds upkeep fell to her. She learned how to safely drive the tractor and mow the lawns.

As she was mowing, she wondered to herself, about this new life. She worked hard to turn the Jackson County Expo and County Fair around and here she was mowing the lawn because COVID had shut down the facility she worked so hard to save. The place was empty. Minimal staff. No energy. No excitement. A dwindling bank account. She looked up to the heavens and asked for a sign.

She received the first text of what would become hundreds that day. There was a fire burning in Ashland. She worried about her board member that lived there, checked the location and after seeing that it wasn’t close to where he lived, and went back to her task at hand. It was only when the first sheriff vehicle showed up and dropped off the first family evacuated and rushed back to get more did she realize that this was going to be a long day.

Debbie Stringer was working in the front office part time. She split her time with another department in the county since the expo was shut down due to COVID since March. As she was getting caught up on filing, when the phone started to ring. People wanted to know where to bring horses being evacuated by the fire. Then more calls came in, the animal shelter was being evacuated. This is when she knew it was going to be a long day.

Rob Holmbeck was on his day off. Since March he was mostly working for the parks department but kept things at his pre-covid job, at the expo, percolating in the background. He decided to go into the fairgrounds office to drop off a training DVD and check on a few things when he saw the mass of people being dropped off and chaos start to build. He called his wife and told her that he wasn’t sure what was going on, but it was going to be a long day.

Ali Leffler was on vacation at the coast. She and her husband, Scott, heard about the fires and Ali sent a text to Helen that she was on her way and would be there as soon as she could.

These 4 people are the heart and soul of the Jackson County expo. They aren’t staff, as much as they are aligned doers with hearts of gold. On this day and the days that followed they showed what they were made of and why they are among the heroes in Jackson County during the Almeda Fire.

Because the Expo is a designated emergency shelter in the county, and COVID shut the expo to all activities, there was an overflow hospital setup in one of the buildings. It had cots and supplies in case there was an outbreak and more space was needed for quarantine in the valley. The overflow never happened but the mobile hospital was ready to go and on the day of the fire it sat empty.

There was also a duplicate of the hospital in storage, ready to be deployed. It never got unboxed.

This team knows how to handle stress.

They do it every year for the county fair. They work insane hours for 10+ days getting ready for, running and then cleaning up after the county’s largest event.

This knowledge and practice is what made them the perfect team for what happened.

Rob knew about the spare hospital and directed his parks department team and the CP City Public Works team, to duplicate the hospital that was up, in another building. They needed it because bus loads of seniors from a burned down senior care center were being brought in.

Debbie, a caring, strong willed, extremely well organized front office manager, took care of the animal evacuations. Mr. Miller, a FFA advisor, led the charge to stand up all the animal pens.

Ali and her husband got to the expo and immediately started helping. Ali took care of people and Scott took care of stuff. He drove forklifts and helped setup equipment. People were starting to show up to drop off clothes and food and supplies. Ali took charge and started coordinating this effort.

The county incident commander, John Vial, quietly rallied the troops. Hundreds of volunteers and every department of the county was quickly onsite.

They had 2,000 evacuees sleeping in tents, cots, in their cars and on the ground that first night. When the red cross showed up a few days later, they remarked about not only how organized it was but also how calm it was.

The whole event tends to blur for Helen, but there are a few stories about other amazing people that stepped in to volunteer in big ways.

Oregon State Representative Pam Marsh, showed up with no fan fair and rolled up her sleeves to help. She asked Helen what was needed and Helen told her that people need DMV access to get driver licenses and ID. People were evacuated with no chance to run back in to get wallets and purses. The DMV was shut down due to COVID and Pam got one opened up and transportation to and from the DMV office to the expo to help people get their ID. Pam also got pharmacies to show up to help with meds that were left behind as well.

Alan Deboer, retired state representative, came to Helen and asked what she needed. She needed transport so Alan, who owns several car dealerships in town, sent two passenger vans with drivers, to the expo for 10 hours a day for two weeks to drive people to the store or wherever they needed to go.

The youth leaders in the LDS church showed up and were task masters. Their first major task was a phone takeover. They answered every call and gave out information as people were calling the expo to find other people or to find out what to do.

Brandon Carlson, who normally runs the sound and lights for all the events at the expo, showed up with his wife and they did everything they could to help.

The list goes on and on.

People and companies from all over the pacific northwest showed up with food, water, forklifts and refrigerated tractor trailers. 

There is more to the story. The expo was nearly evacuated on the second day, when someone started a fire on the greenway near Central Point and it burned uncontrollably for several scary hours. The Obenchain fire that continued to burn for several days nearby brought in several livestock animals that needed to be evacuated throughout the weeks.

Helen and her team didn’t sleep more than a couple hours a night for the first week or two. They worked day and night to ensure that the expo experience of everyone there was the best it could be.

They do this every year during the county fair and hundreds of other events throughout the year, and they just did it again, during their first and hopefully last emergency.

This story was written by Jim Teece, a proud board member of the Jackson County Fair and Expo and publisher of the Southern Oregon Business Journal.

See related article – Employees from every department in Jackson County were part of the Fire Response and Running of the Evacuation Center at the Expo.

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