Sandy Spelliscy didn’t know what to expect when she left her Ashland home Tuesday and headed north, toward where she thought she might be of use. The Talent city manager wouldn’t reach her destination that night, in fact she wouldn’t make it back home — two blocks away from where the Almeda fire began — until midnight.
That afternoon, Kimathi Mucioki and Travis Whalen, friends and neighbors at the Talent Parkside Apartment complex, waited at home as the fire they didn’t know much about galloped swiftly toward town. Both bolted within a couple hours of each other, just in time as it turned out, to avoid disaster.
All three were back in Talent early Wednesday morning to assess the damage. Spelliscy said she was warned before touring the damage at 6 a.m., but was still shocked by the devastation.
“So I talked to a lot of people and they said be prepared because you’re just not going to believe what it looks like,” she said. “But it’s hard to prepare for something like that. It’s truly gut-wrenching and kind of unfathomable.
“Basically, everything to the west of Talent Avenue is in good shape, but south of Talent Avenue is severely impacted. Hundreds of structures lost.”
That included, she said, at least two over-55 communities which were almost completely destroyed — Mountain View Estates and Oak Valley 55+ Planned Community. Out of almost 200 homes at Mountain View Estates, she said, only a few remained, and Oak Valley looked like a total loss.
“And these are our most vulnerable,” Spelliscy said. “Very modest income communities. Seniors, and the kinds of places that will be the hardest to replace. Talent and Phoenix were known as affordable places to live in the Rogue Valley.”
And Talent and Phoenix appear to be the hardest hit by the Almeda fire, which was estimated to cover 2,500 to 3,000 acres by Tuesday night, much of that through neighborhoods where buildings are stacked shoulder to shoulder. Or were. When asked to estimate the loss of buildings — both businesses and homes — a Jackson County public information officer said “all of our resources have been working on stopping the fire,” and that nobody had time to make such assessments.
Citizen journalists did, however, and phone-filmed videos started popping up on both YouTube and Facebook Tuesday night and Wednesday morning, most capturing images of smoldering ruins interspersed with seemingly untouched buildings, sometimes next to each other. One “drive-by fire view” video of Ashland and Talent shot by “BoutenkoFilms” drew 61,191 views as of Wednesday night and appeared to show several well- known businesses still standing — Pump House Burgers and Brews, Talent Café, Camelot Theatre, The Grotto and Rays Food Place among them. A senior center, Suncrest Place, and Empowered Life Church also were spared, both near burned buildings.
Others weren’t so lucky. Oregon Strength was standing but scorched, Snap Fitness was burned to the ground, Green Valley Pump appeared to be a total loss, as was Puck’s Donuts of Phoenix, and swaths of homes were also destroyed, only their blackened foundations still standing come Wednesday morning.
That’s what Whalen and Mucioki braced themselves for as they left Medford for Talent at 5 a.m. Wednesday morning. In Talent, they encountered broken gas lines shooting flames into the air, charred skeletons of buildings and, only blocks away from their own apartment complex, an incinerated subdivision. They parked in the Chuck Roberts Park parking lot and hoofed it about four blocks down Rapp Road to the Parkside Apartment complex, which was miraculously unscathed. Considering what they had just seen, Whalen and Mucioki had reason to be surprised.
“Talent Avenue was this dividing mark, where in between Highway 99 and Talent Avenue there was almost complete devastation,” Whalen said. “And that’s from Arnos [Road] and then as far as what my eyes saw just past Rapp Road. So on that east side, just almost total devastation. There were a few anomalies. We saw one quadplex standing in the middle of nothingness.”
After grabbing a few items and Whalen’s car, the two headed back — the two stayed with their families at Whalen’s parent’s house Tuesday night in Medford. On the way, they noticed smoldering patches of mulch in front of another apartment complex. They stomped out the fire but couldn’t completely squelch it. Until, that is, they noticed a couple jerrycans sitting nearby. Both were filled with water, and that was the end of that fire.
A few firefighters showed up as they were dousing the flames and said they’d mop up.
“It’s good to help, you never know,” Mucioki said.
In Phoenix, word got out early Wednesday via Phoenix-Talent sSuperintendent Brent Barry that each of the district’s school buildings were spared, no small feat for firefighters who battled back flames at the high school Tuesday night.
PHS teacher, cross country coach and mediation program coordinator John Cornet said he breathed a sigh of relief upon receiving the news by email. Still, Cornet said, the fire’s impact will be felt throughout the school system as displaced families begin to rebuild their lives.
“Not that far away there’s some real significant destruction,” Cornet said. “On the flip side, not that far away there’s some real significant destruction. One block away is a neighborhood where one of our teachers lived and it’s gone.”
Cornet said displaced teachers have expressed appreciation for those who offered shelter, even if it was for only one night during Tuesday's frantic Level 3 “go” evacuation. He knew of a student who was told he could shelter at South Medford High School, only to be redirected away from there later. He ended up in a house across the street from Cornet in north Medford.
Barry announced Wednesday that school in Phoenix-Talent was canceled until Monday. Cornet pointed out that access to the web could be another challenge for the district, along with housing.
“We’re going to have to check in with all the families,” he said.
State Rep. Pam Marsh was chipping in Wednesday at the Jackson County Expo, which was used as a shelter for displaced families. Marsh said she’d talked to Talent Mayor Darby Ayers-Flood and was given a rundown of the damage, though she had yet to see it firsthand.
The next steps will be crucial, she said, because more help is needed to deal with the fallout.
“I think the people here at the Expo are doing a valiant job holding it together, but I also think we’re going to need emergency operation efforts for several days if not longer than that because there’s been hundreds of people displaced,” she said.
“I’ve talked to my colleagues in the manufactured home world today and asked what would it take to start thinking about rebuilding these manufactured home parks, because they were wonderful homes for people and if we don’t make a concerted effort to replace them they will be lost and people will never regain those homes.”
Spelliscy encouraged Talent residents to refrain from returning to town because it’s unsafe and because they would likely return to homes with no water or electricity.
As far as rebuilding goes, she said her town needs help and she’s already busy trying to find it.
“We’re going to be looking to the state and federal government mostly, in that arena,” she said. “[Ayers-Flood] has already issued an emergency declaration, and we’re planning on getting it ratified by the City Council tomorrow. And then that moves its way up through the county and into the state level. And I know that they’re working on an emergency declaration out of the governor’s office as well. And I’ve been in touch with both Sen. [Jeff] Merkley’s and Sen. [Ron] Wyden’s office, and we’re going to be looking for federal relief, too. This is the triple whammy here, and I know we’re not the only town in this position but ... we’re going to be really looking to outside sources to help us out.”
Joe Zavala can be reached at 541-821-0829 or firstname.lastname@example.org.