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Hunter Communications helping towns recover from Almeda fire

After its employees worked marathon hours to restore service in the wake of the Almeda fire, Hunter Communications is now offering three months of free business internet in Talent and Phoenix to help those towns recover.

“Our customers and communities are part of our families. We support each other to get through these devastating times,” said Michael Wynschenk, chief executive officer of Hunter Communications.

Businesses that are already customers of Hunter Communications fiber internet will receive free service through the rest of the year.

Businesses in Talent and Phoenix that are not customers are eligible for three months of free service if their services are installed by Dec. 15.

The eligible ZIP codes for the offer are 97535 and 97540.

For more information about the free internet service, call 541-414-1111.

Hunter Communications workers put in 15- to 20-hour days to bring back internet service in areas devastated by the Almeda fire, the South Obenchain fire between Shady Cove and Butte Falls, and the Table Rock fire near Central Point.

Workers also restored internet service needed by firefighters and other first responders dealing with the fires. The Almeda fire had pockets of burning and smoldering areas for days, and the South Obenchain fire is still burning, although it’s 100% contained. The Table Rock fire was stamped out relatively quickly.

Brian Neubert was among the Hunter Communications workers who kept working amid the danger — even though his Talent home was destroyed by the Almeda fire. His supervisors had told him he didn’t need to come to work.

“Brian’s home was destroyed, his family was relocated, and meanwhile he’s on the job. He worked 14 days straight,” Wynschenk said.

Jim Lamp, Hunter Communications vice president of construction, had been working with Neubert in Eureka, California, Sept. 8, the day the Almeda fire broke out.

“We were getting alerts. Customers were going down in the Talent area. At the same time, we were monitoring another fire in the Eagle Point area. And while we were looking at what we needed to replace, we were watching the news in amazement at how fast the fire was burning,” Lamp said.

With transportation routes shut down, Lamp and Neubert stayed up late Sept. 8 in Eureka, monitoring the fires, calculating the areas that would need to be repaired and getting assessments from crews in Southern Oregon, including where they were and whether they were safe.

“The next morning we headed back to Jackson County. We were in the truck that Wednesday morning when my co-worker Brian got the news that his house was gone. I wanted him to take time off, but he said he would be back to work at 6 p.m. Wednesday night,” Lamp said.

Over the next 14 days, Hunter Communications workers put in 2,000 miles of fiber optic strands that carry signals for internet service. Normally, that amount of work would take 23 regular working days, the company said.

“Most of the time we worked until 11-12 at night. We just didn’t stop,” Lamp said. “You drink water when you can, eat when you can. Maybe take a double lunch. Eat breakfast around 6 a.m., and try to wait as long as you can to eat lunch. Around 4 or 5 o’clock, sometimes 6, you eat your second lunch. Then you’d go until you couldn’t go any more — or because it was a good stopping point. I tried to keep our crews at 15-16 hours a day to allow enough time to get at least 4 or 5 hours of sleep. However, one day was 22 hours.”

A crew went to a burned facility in Butte Falls and worked until 3 a.m. to bring back communications infrastructure needed to fight the South Obenchain fire, Lamp said.

Workers for other essential services, including electricity and natural gas, were dealing with downed power lines and natural gas leaks while working to bring back service.

Phoenix Public Works Superintendent Matias Mendez was among those on the job to restore water service despite losing his home to the Almeda fire.

Everyone on the ground was dealing with smoke and toxins from burned homes and businesses.

Lamp said he’s never seen such destruction in his career, which spans more than 25 years.

“Typically the fires that we respond to are in a forest area. You’ll have to replace maybe one or two poles. I have never seen anything like the destruction on the Almeda fire,” he said. “You’d go into an area and the whole neighborhood is gone. It was surreal. The only thing standing is the barbecue pits. That burnt plastic chemical smell is everywhere. It gets into your clothes. I’ve never seen anything like that.”

Wynschenk said seeing the damage and the impact on residents first-hand was psychologically damaging. Hunter Communications is offering counseling for its employees.

Workers saw residents sitting on curbs crying or sifting through the charred remnants of their homes and neighborhoods, Lamp said.

Burned debris has to be removed from broad swaths of Talent and Phoenix before the rebuilding of permanent homes can begin. Government officials and local builders are working to identify empty parcels of land where water, sewer and utility services could be put in for temporary trailers.

Hunter Communications has offered to provide internet service for those temporary settlements, Wynschenk said.

He said the company’s focus has now shifted to helping during the long recovery process.

“After a disaster, attention moves to something else. But individuals and families are still in need of so much,” Wynschenk said.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.

Hunter Communications worker Brian Neubert looks at debris left by the Almeda fire that destroyed his home in Talent. Photo courtesy Hunter Communications
Jamie Lusch / Mail TribuneHunter Communications is offering free internet to Phoenix and Talent businesses in the wake of the Almeda fire.