Southern Oregon community reflects on Almeda Fire 2 years later

SOUTHERN OREGON, —Exactly 2 years ago Thursday, the Almeda Fire tore through part of southern Jackson County.  Before containment, the fire destroyed nearly 2500 structures, damaged 134 more, and claimed 3 lives. While community members agree, that they’ve made progress since September of 2020, there’s still a great deal of re-building to do.

What was once devastation and destruction now shows signs of rebuilding and recovery in Phoenix and Talent. Businesses, community buildings, and apartment complexes have been rebuilt, and some families have found their way back to their communities. But September 8th, 2020 still sits heavy on the hearts of many in southern Oregon.

Talent residents Denise and Paul Wright lost 35 years worth of memories in the Almeda Fire.

“We were smart enough to take our two vehicles, our trailer, and went to our daughters-in-law’s and spent the night thinking we were going to come home tomorrow, tomorrow came and Talent was gone,” said Denise Wright.

After bouncing around from a trailer, to an apartment complex, her family has finally found a place to call home in Medford. The two getting the keys in January.

“The two years is here, and it seems like it was a million years ago, we go back to Talent to visit our neighbors and friends and it is sad, but we’re happy we’re here where we are now,” said Wright.

Talent Mayor, Darby Ayers-Flood says some of Talent’s greatest progress in recovery has happened in this past year.  Now, half of the single-family homes have been rebuilt or are in the process of rebuilding. But a lot of work remains.

“There are still 400 people living in hotel rooms, 100 FEMA trailers in use, and our transitional housing in town the Gateway Project is completely full so we still have such a long way to go,” said Ayers-Flood.

Organizations like Habitat for Humanity stepped up during the rebuilding efforts.

Through its Almeda Home Ownership Program, it helped people like Susan Alexander and her daughter Angel find a new home, after losing their trailer.

“First thing I did was just call her on the phone and say we got we got it, we got it, and I was just screaming we got a home,” said Alexander.

Over the course of a year, the two took multiple homeownership courses and did 500 hours of what Habitat calls sweat equity, ranging from flooring to painting to fencing on the home. Now it calls this triplex next to other Habitat families, home.

“I was exhausted mentally and physically, but I think it did me good to be forced into doing this work and I knew at the end of this I would have a home,” said Alexander.

One of the biggest challenges for Talent today is commercial property owners coming back to the area, like the Malmgren Garage, which was destroyed in the Almeda Fire.  That’s changed, thanks to a $200,000 grant awarded for its reconstruction back in June. The Talent Urban Renewal Agency says the site will become a mixed-use facility, with flexible commercial space in the front and a two-bedroom apartment in the back.

“It’s a step forward in helping us rebuild the garage and our community,” said Malmgren Garage owner, Bonnie Morgan.

Over in Phoenix, according to county documents, of 116 single-family units lost, 92% have applied for building permits. Out of 284 mobile home spaces lost, only 21% have applied for a building permit. Yet only 12% of commercial structures lost have applied for a building permit.

D and S Harley Davidson rose from the ashes this June, celebrating its grand reopening.  The celebration, happened just twenty months after their old facility burned down in the Almeda Fire.

“It’s amazing it’s amazing not only to be back home but to see all these bikes and all these people it’s just amazing. It was great to see all those bikes pull in it just welcomed us home and made us feel like we were back home,” said owner, Kim O’Toole.

If you drive through the small cities, you can see change almost daily. Exciting new developments are also on the horizon, like this new 55-unit, four-story apartment complex to replace a single-level commercial strip mall that was burned behind Jack in the Box. The city of Phoenix says it hopes to have the building permits issued soon.

While there is still more progress to go, two years later, southern Oregon has come together in the effort to rebuild our resilient community.

“We’re really coming together as a region and making some really large scale plans that will tie us all into a cohesive way to being effort to back our communities in a more fire resilient way and a more emergency resilient way,” said Ayers-Flood.

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Jenna King is the 6pm and 11pm anchor for NBC5 News. Jenna is a Burbank, CA native. She graduated from the University of Oregon with a degree in Broadcast Journalism and a minor in Sports Business. During her time at Oregon she was part of the student-run television station, Duck TV. She also grew her passion for sports through her internship with the PAC 12 Network. When Jenna is not in the newsroom you can find her rooting for her hometown Dodgers, exploring the outdoors or binging on the latest Netflix release.
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