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Midnight ride of Bow DeBey

One of the stories to emerge from the Almeda firestorm is the midnight ride of Bow DeBey on his bicycle, shooting phone video of wildly burning Talent Avenue, the main drag through town, and narrating to evacuees and the world about who lost their homes and who (so far) had been spared.

Very little information was available about the extent of the damage beneath the billowing black mass of smoke, so DeBey hopped on his bike, trying to ascertain exactly where he was amid the high-drama conflagration, so he could inform hundreds of locals on Facebook Live. As he rode, he could feel the blasts as homes and propane tanks exploded, exclaiming, “Ouch, that’s hot!”

Two Facebook videos, 13 and 42 minutes long, are at “Bow Shaban DeBey.” As he starts the live video, DeBey says everything on the east side of Talent Avenue from Arnos Road south to the town center is burned, but the other side is “untouched.”

DeBey, in an interview, says Talent firefighters, using Talent Avenue as a firebreak, did “an amazing job” saving homes west of that strip.

“I saw them putting out fires constantly,” he says.

At one point in the video, he exclaims, “It’s so windy. Holy smokes. That is hot, hot, hot. I’m sweating. Oh, my God half of Talent is going to be gone. It looks dangerous but I don’t really feel I’m in any danger here.”

Picking up requests from people watching the live video, DeBey announces, “I’m headed down to see if your house is standing, Chris.”

Typical of Facebook comments was one from Heather McKinley-Brown: “Bow, thank you for taking video so we can at least know what was happening. Do you know about the Holiday Lane Apartments?”

Maureen Claire noted, “My heart is broken stay safe, Bow.”

At one point, DeBey reaches Rapp Road and says he can see all the way to the highway.

“Sorry to say this, but all the houses are burned.”

Global News posted a three-minute edit of DeBey’s video, which surpassed 300,000 views on YouTube.

A friend, Paul Siegel of Ashland, wrote and sang, “Pray for Rain,” and mixed with DeBey’s fire footage, a five-minute video created by Leyna D’Ancona is posted at youtube.com/watch?v=i0obi5Dq8Us&feature=youtu.be&fbclid=IwAR2y_WF8wLM4XhR6WFknVIrXPCFUiWR5YuRLAzR3MMnSjRTHevlrXXMmCAs.

D’Ancona posted, “There was little to no information regarding the fires while they were happening. Emergency alert systems failed. As families searched in vain for information, Bow got on his bike and went back in to share the state of things with friends and neighbors. Without this courageous act, many people would wonder in agony if they lost everything or were spared. Others barely made it out in time.”

While the fire burned, DeBey started a GoFundMe campaign for evacuees. It’s still open with $9,000 on a goal of $250,000 at www.gofundme.com/f/talent-oregon-fire-relief. The money will go chiefly to renters without insurance, he notes.

DeBey is a Talent resident, living on Marin Court. His home was spared.

He is a member of Louisa Reade’s writing salon, a writers’ group that meets twice a month to “free write” after meditating on a prompt from her, which during the last meeting was about the firestorm.

Five days after the Sept. 8 fire, DeBey wrote, “It was midnight and although I had a perfectly safe and comfortable house to sleep in, it wasn’t mine and I didn’t know the fate of my house. I dressed, drove around roadblocks and into the blaze. My house was standing and safe. What a relief.

“Grab your bike and go see, I thought. The city was burning and empty, really empty except first-responders. People need to know, they need to see with their own eyes because fake news is a thing. Facebook Live it was. I witnessed and transmitted the destruction, and people watched. One (viewer) to start, then two, five, nine, then 12 were watching. Questions, “can you tell me if my house is OK?” and I answered and I answered and I answered.

“Some were OK and many were not. I’ve given bad news before about cars but never like this and never so many times in a night.

“The heat was intense even 100 feet away, and the smells, oh, the smells. Lives going up in smoke.

“I sat on my dark porch for almost two hours after my now-famous bike ride, answering the same question, ’is my house OK?’ My body was numb, my heart was too. I barely cried that night.

“By morning, 20,000 people had seen my video, then 30,000 and over 100,000 by that night. People were so grateful to have information, so happy to know their home was safe.

“Everyday I sit for an hour or more answering questions as the news is still not getting out, and it’s still hard to get in. Relatives from out of state asking about their kids and parents who haven’t checked in yet.

“I cried in Louisa’s kitchen after a call from a friend checking on me. I cry for no reason, here and there. I read comments and thank you’s and do interviews, and I try to hold what I can. It seems for me a month since the fire, but it’s only been five days.

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

Bow DeBey talks into the camera during his midnight ride through Talent Sept. 8.
Bow DeBey took this shot of a burning home in Talent from his bike the night of Almeda fire.