María Helena and Manuel Mejía speak with Archbishop Sample and priest Fredy Bonilla after Mass at Sacred Heart Church in Medford Sept. 20. (Patricia Montana/El Centinela)
María Helena and Manuel Mejía speak with Archbishop Sample and priest Fredy Bonilla after Mass at Sacred Heart Church in Medford Sept. 20. (Patricia Montana/El Centinela)
MEDFORD — Maria Helena Mejía built the soul of her home in the small town of Talent over time. Little by little her house became a refuge and sanctuary. There, she established her love for family and their culture. Fruit trees, chili peppers, tomatoes and tomatillos in her vegetable garden, rose bushes — they all disappeared in flames.

On Sept. 4, María Helena traveled to her native Mexico because of the imminent death of her father. In the company of Sonia, her daughter, they reached Zacatecas to say goodbye.

Four days later, the Almeda Fire exploded in Ashland under circumstances that authorities are still investigating. Unusual atmospheric pressure created hot winds with strong gusts, feeding and pushing the flames along the banks of I-5 in the direction of Talent, Phoenix and Medford, leaving three people dead and a path of destruction with thousands of burned houses, destroyed businesses and thousands of displaced people.

On Sept. 8, Manuel Mejía, María Helena’s husband, left early to fulfill his workday in Naumes, one of the largest pear producers in the United States.

As the day went on, Manuel got calls from two of his brothers who lived near his house in Talent. “They already evacuated us,” they told him.

Manuel prepared to rush to his home, but there was no time. His grandchildren called to tell him to go to a relative’s house in Medford instead.

“So my house, my truck stored in the garage, everything burned down,” Manuel said in Spanish with a sigh.

The Mejías are part of an extensive Hispanic community residing in Phoenix and Talent, where siblings, children and other relatives were also affected by the fire. Unofficial figures indicate that nearly 2,000 other Hispanic families lost their homes Sept. 8. Many lived in manufactured homes, apartments and trailers.

“I was so proud of my home,” said María Helena. “I always told my friends that this was ‘my paradise in Eden,’ inside and out,” she said.

“It was 30 years of my life, of work, of fighting for what is wanted,” she said, through tears and with a broken voice.

“What hurts me the most is having lost my altar,” she added. María Helena visited the Holy Land and in each place found stones and marked them with their location. Those cherished sacramentals sat on her home altar, along with olive twigs, soil from Jerusalem and water from the Jordan River and the Sea of Galilee.

In Mexico, when she heard of the fires, she and her relatives prayed for a safe outcome. Her loved ones survived and she is at peace, even though sad. She has not been able to return to the home site.

“All this hurts a lot,” she said. “It’s hard to remember every day of work in my yard. It was my joy, my diversion, my personal devotion. I saw in my flowers the greatness of the Lord, with so many colors and smells.”

María Helena said she has put everything in the hands of God.

“If he grants me the blessing of a house again, I leave it to his will,” she said.

patriciam@ocp.org