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Cyclists Bring Food And Water To People In Oregon Towns Destroyed By Fire

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Megafires across the West are setting records. Millions of acres have burned from the northern reaches of Washington state to California's border with Mexico. In southern Oregon, the Almeda Fire has destroyed hundreds of homes in the small towns of Talent and Phoenix. And this afternoon, a man was arrested on arson charges for allegedly helping to start that fire. Roadblocks are keeping cars out of those evacuation zones, but cyclists can still get in. Jefferson Public Radio reporter April Ehrlich rode her bike with a group that's delivering resources to people stranded in their homes.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: You guys take the big water jug.

APRIL EHRLICH, BYLINE: It didn't matter that the skies were filled with smoke for this group of about a hundred cyclists because they had a mission - to bring food and water to people in Talent and Phoenix who were running low.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: ...Able to put this on there and see how it goes.

EHRLICH: This evacuation zone is closed, even to residents, because of gas leaks and downed power lines. But many people are still living here, and they don't have electricity or potable water.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRDS CHIRPING)

EHRLICH: The cyclist group was able to get into Talent through a bike path. Then they spread across town, carrying cases of water, sandwiches, pet food and other supplies.

SCOTT BANDOROFF: Do you need water or food or anything?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I'll take some water.

BANDOROFF: Absolutely.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: OK - just a couple bottles. Thank you.

BANDOROFF: Here.

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

Just a couple of days earlier, flames had engulfed entire blocks in Talent. Even so, some people chose not to evacuate. They didn't think the fire would reach them, or they wanted to protect their home from the flames, or they just didn't have a way to evacuate because they didn't have a car.

NICK DAVID: Hey there.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: What's going on, bud?

DAVID: Do you have enough water?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Yeah, we're good.

EHRLICH: Nick David rode a large cargo bike with gallons of water, including a five-gallon bottle strapped into a child seat. But he was having trouble giving it away.

DAVID: I've heard several people say there are more people in need than me. But where are they?

EHRLICH: It was like a lot of people didn't think they deserved it, that there were others out there who needed it more. There were also just more cars sneaking in with supplies through back roads. Even so, almost everyone appreciated the small bit of kindness, including Susan Silva.

SUSAN SILVA: I really appreciate that you're out there with the smoke and COVID and just all of it. And I just feel beaten down. I broke my ankle 10 weeks ago. This has just sucked. This summer has sucked. So that just really, really just made my heart happy.

(CROSSTALK)

EHRLICH: Back in the center of town, cyclist Scott Bandoroff sits among a group that's delegating tasks to others who have brought supplies. He did bring some water, but mostly, he came because he's a psychologist with experience in crisis counseling. Bandoroff says it can take a while before people feel the effects of trauma.

BANDOROFF: It's often several months later that it really hits people. You know, many people do what they need to do to meet immediate survival needs. That's what's important - taking care of your children and things like that. But after that's done and it settles in, it's usually a few months out.

EHRLICH: Bandoroff says it's natural for people to discredit their feelings. There's always someone who has it worse off.

BANDOROFF: The feeling that, oh, I should be OK, and my neighbor had it worse, and I didn't even lose my home or - you don't compare traumas, you know? What you're feeling is absolutely legitimate and valid, and you need to honor that and get the support that you need even if you think you shouldn't need it.

EHRLICH: Bandoroff says he and other mental health professionals are coming together to provide free or affordable counseling to anyone in this region who needs it because even after these fires finally subside and the smoke clears, the physical and emotional toll will likely last for years.

For NPR News, I'm April Ehrlich in Ashland, Ore.

(SOUNDBITE OF ELKHORN'S "TO SEE DARKNESS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.