As she was about to start her senior year at Southern Oregon University last fall, Elizabeth Leydsman never dreamed her senior capstone project would be writing up a memoir and interviewing scores of family friends about a fire that burned down her home and 156 others in Weed, Calif.

The call came to her Monday, Sept. 15, as she and husband Tanner were stopped at a Dairy Queen in Eugene on their way to Ashland from the coast. It was her mom, Sue Tavalero. She said there was a fire and it was serious.

“I thought maybe it was the old lady next door with her cigarettes, no big deal,” said Leydsman.

“But, 10 minutes later, there was another call. It was a giant fire was headed toward their home, moving rapidly in high winds. Now it had jumped the elementary school and taken hold in their block. Embers were on their roof. Her mom had to evacuate."

Leydsman got on Facebook and saw “the whole town had burned down. People were tending to freak out more and more.”

She heard the news that her family’s house was gone. All the houses were gone from the whole neighborhood. Don’t bother coming home. It doesn’t exist. Stay at your apartment in Ashland.

Tavalero had about one minute, maybe two, to grab what she could and run. She snatched family photos off the wall by the front door, especially the one that showed the kids at intervals of months and years, growing up.

That will go on the wall of the new house, for which they broke ground a few days ago. It’s exactly the same floor plan and size, on the same spot. It will be ready for move-in, her mother swears, by her 25th wedding anniversary in October.

“It’s something you never expect, such a shock. You can prepare as much as possible but in one minute, it’s all disappearing and you don’t know what to do,” said Leydsman, the daughter of CalFire worker Scott Tavalero.

For the capstone project, Leydsman interviewed her family and many neighbors. It will include visuals of the fire and she will deliver it at 12:30 p.m. Thursday, May 14, Room 329, in SOU’s Hannon Library, with all her family in attendance.

The hard part of the project, she said, was interviewing lifelong friends who had lost everything — although, “miraculously,” all were evacuated with no deaths or serious injuries. 

“It was difficult. I was raised there. I could see how hard it was for them,” she says. “People are still fighting with insurance and mourning the loss of all their possessions.”

Now, eight months later, everyone is rebuilding on the same land as part of what her mom calls “the new normal.”

Leydsman displays the charred remains of her beloved bass clarinet, which she played through her teen years but had set in her closet so she could focus on college.

“Dad rescued it and gave it to me. It’s special to me. I was going to pick it up again,” she says. “Nothing will ever replace it.”

The day after the Boles Fire, as it was called, her dad got the family past travel barriers in his official rig, so they could stand before the ashes of their home. They took pictures.

“Our jeep was toast. We could only walk on the street. The ground was still too hot. It looked like the moon, just the base of chimneys and a few gun safes,” she said. “Guns in a gun safes don’t survive a fire like this, by the way, not this intensity, this duration.”

When the fire struck at 1:38 in the afternoon, her dad was fighting a big fire near Sacremento. He hurried home and joined in fighting blazes that threatened the Roseburg mill, a critical task, since it is the employer of most of the townfolk. Her dad and three other CalFire workers in the neighborhood were personally honored by Gov. Jerry Brown with the California State Safety Award for their work on the job, as well as in the Weed fire.

Leydsman, a senior in English, wants her written and audio record to live and survive as a record of the heroism of that and following days, when the community bloomed as one, in long efforts of recovery.

“Everyone went door-to-door, knocking, getting dogs out, offering to donate lodging. It was amazing to see a community come together like that.”

The family’s insurance company was “fantastic,” showed up immediately and gave them a debit card for the essentials of a new life, she says. From work and insurance, the family was financially good to go on a new life. Her parents donated their extra funds to neighbors, where needed.

Her brother Andrew, 22, was just finishing a long hike on the Pacific Crest Trail in Canada, so Leydsman and her husband Tanner drove there and fetched him. The local College of the Siskiyous created an emergency “construction academy” and Andrew enrolled. He is now augmenting a shortage of builders and is pounding nails on the new homes. 

As for Ronald Marshall, 25, the man charged with intentionally setting the fire, Leydsman says, “That’s focusing on the past. I know he’s being punished for what he did. He knows it was wrong and he can see how hard and horrible this has been for everyone.” 

Given her unique window on the fire, Leydsman is considering publishing the story as a book or at least self-publishing enough copies for all who want it. 

“People need to know we are still here and that people are healing and adjusting to it,” she says. “We’re healing but there are some people who still need help. Hearing the story can help them. It was easier for people to open up to me because I’ve been there and felt the loss and I’m here to help other people — and I can be humorous about it. Like the couch. Mom always hated that couch. Well, now it’s gone." 

Asked if she can embrace the old saw that all things happen for a reason, Leydsman said, “Yes, I believe that and, while it was very sad, it’s brought the community closer together and shown us how big the human heart is and how kind people really are. We’ve all learned to be a lot more compassionate.” 

Donations to the Weed Fire survivors may be made to Siskiyou Habitat for Humanity, c/o the Boles Fire, P.O. Box 1482, Yreka CA 96097; or online at habitatsiskiyou.org.

John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.