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Skaff grateful for support in trying times

PHOENIX — The act of extending a helping hand to a neighbor is a personal one these days for Phoenix High senior Kassandra Skaff.

Her family’s home was among the 2,800 structures destroyed during the Sept. 8 fires that ravaged the towns of Phoenix and Talent.

Amid all the devastation, the 17-year-old Skaff remains grateful, but admittedly still shaken, by the dramatic turn in her life.

“It’s been rough,” said Skaff. “I don’t know, I haven’t fully processed it. It’s only been a week and a handful of days and my brain, I think, still hasn’t really gone, oh, you still don’t have that place to go back to anymore.”

If there has been a saving grace, it’s that so many people in and out of the Phoenix-Talent community have stepped up on the behalf of the Skaff family and too many others like them that are having to pick themselves up from the rubble in an already trying time.

Phoenix-Talent School District Superintendent Brent Barry recently noted that 80% of families in the district have been impacted by the Almeda fire and 45% lost their homes entirely.

“It’s been really nice having people offer and letting us know that they’re there for whatever we need help with,” said Skaff. “Anything that we need, they’re willing to help. It kind of takes a little bit of the burden off because we’re kind of still in panic mode even two weeks later, trying to figure out what we’re doing and what’s the next step, so it’s really nice to have people offering to alleviate that.”

From friends volunteering meals to helping sift through the rubbage on the site where their home once stood to offers of helping them rebuild, it’s all been heartwarming and even a little overwhelming.

Skaff talked of venturing to the makeshift sites that have popped up with donated goods for those who lost everything and how awestruck she has been.

“Just walking into those places and seeing the amount of support and things that we’ve gotten from so many people who are so willing to give up and donate so many things, it’s amazing,” she said. “I just went to something that had a couple truckloads of things from Montana and that just blew my mind. People in Montana are donating stuff for us? It was just really amazing. The support means so much, and it also really does make it a lot easier for us.”

Nothing was easy on that fateful first day of fires and the morning that followed.

“We didn’t really expect it to get our house,” she said of initial fire concerns. “It was kind of a weird situation, we weren’t getting much information. We couldn’t find a station on the TV that was saying anything, or on the radio. All I really heard was that there was a fire in Ashland and it moved to Talent and then all of a sudden we were being told to evacuate our home in Phoenix.”

In the haste of such a foreboding moment, packing wasn’t exactly seamless.

“There was enough time to grab some things but not a ton,” said Skaff. “Like, I don’t have any of my sports stuff because I also wasn’t thinking about it. A lot of my family wasn’t able to get out that many sentimental items from the house.”

For Skaff, there were a handful of favorite T-shirts, among them a shirt from the Harrier Classic when she set a personal record in cross country and her favorite Phoenix softball shirt, and some personal belongings from a nearby shelf.

It was all such a blur, Skaff really didn’t know what she had until the following days.

“There were some things that I grabbed that I completely thought I left,” she recalled, “but then I was going through the box of stuff that I grabbed and I saw it and I completely blanked. My memory from that day is really spotty, I don’t even remember grabbing it.”

As anyone who has had to pack in a rush can attest, some things made it through the evacuation that were unessential, to say the least. Skaff made that realization when she unpacked a broken hairbrush shortly after hearing the shocking news the following morning that her home had been lost to fire.

“Phoenix is pretty close-knit and we have a couple firefighter family friends and they were like, yeah, I’m sorry, we were on your subdivision and we weren’t able to get your house,” said Skaff.

“When I found out our house burned down,” she added with a laugh, “I was like, that’s great, that’s amazing ... I’m so happy at least I have that nice broken hairbrush.”

When the evacuated family was able to return to Phoenix, Skaff said it was difficult to comprehend the amount of damage that had occurred.

“Before this, all I’ve really seen are small house fires where there’s still beams up and things like that,” said Skaff, “and I think that’s what was in my head when we were leaving but when we got back, we had my favorite Jeep on the side of the road and it was just amazing to me how much burned because the Jeep is completely burned down. It wasn’t in the garage, it was on the side of the road and that’s just crazy to me. It’s just devastation and destruction that’s crazy to look at. I definitely wouldn’t have expected that to happen here, ever.”

Also unexpected was the immediate toll it has taken on the family unit, which has been forced to separate for the time being after having six members overall in their house. Skaff’s 90-year-old grandmother has been taken in by her aunt, her older sister is just now set to move into a small apartment and she is joined by her older brother and both parents in staying with family and soon will move to a friend’s house in Medford.

“It was a very big houseful,” said Skaff. “It’s been rough for everyone. We’ve had to split up because it’s difficult to find a spot for six people, and it’s really sad, but here in a couple months I think we’ll be able to have a spot that allows us to stay in the same place kind of in more comfort.”

The hope is to live in mobile homes until the family can rebuild their home in Phoenix.

In the time being, life for Skaff and many of her peers has already been challenging enough after the COVID-19 pandemic threw a monkey wrench into her sports routine as well as forced online schooling to begin this past Wednesday.

As someone who runs cross country and plays girls basketball and softball at Phoenix High, Skaff still has no guarantees that she will be able to participate in her senior year once the official seasons begin in January.

“If I’m being honest, I did have a small breakdown a couple days ago,” admitted Skaff. “We were at Dick’s shopping for my sister’s birthday, which was a few days ago, and I saw the softball shorts and it made me so sad to think that I might not even have to replace mine.”

In these trying times, Skaff said she’s thankful for all her friends and those who continue to reach out and offer support.

“It’s really nice to see my text messages and stuff,” she said, no doubt echoing the thoughts of many in her situation. “Just even a text really makes me feel good and that I have support and that people care. Letting people know, I think, is really important.”

Another important step, Skaff said, will be when sports practices finally resume Monday at Phoenix High and Colver Field.

“I can’t wait,” she said. “It’s really important to me because sports are a big part of my life and with so much change going on and not even going to school anymore, I feel like, even if there’s restrictions, just having that little bit of semi-normal contact and having something to do will be amazing. It’s especially important with it being an activity because it’s a little difficult to be getting exercise right now. I think it will be really good for just my mental and physical health if I’m being honest.”

Have a story idea? Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, khenry@rosebudmedia.com, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry

Andy Atkinson / Mail TribunePHS athlete Kassandra Skaff at an apartment complex that burned down a half a block away from the high school in Phoenix. Skaff and her family lost their home.