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Phoenix couple lose home, hours after closing on it

The sense of tremendous loss. The heavy sadness. Kate Florez says she experienced it all and probably every stage of grief, too, during that strange, nebulous four-day span as she and her husband, Austin, waited to find out the fate of their Phoenix house.

But some time after the moment she convinced a police officer, against his better judgment, to give her one last shot to save her cat and before the Florezes finally pulled up to the curb Saturday, Kate Florez arrived at a place some may consider surprising, considering.

“Over the course of those days I just got more and more grateful that I didn’t have to worry about my family being injured or missing, or having to worry about a roof over our heads because my company was so kind as to let us use the condo for right now,” she said. “More just gratitude than anything.”

Like hundreds of others on that terrible Tuesday, Sept. 8, Austin and Kate Florez lost their home. But unlike most, probably unlike anyone, the young couple don’t even have any memories of their place on the 200 block of Northridge Terrace from which to draw on. Unless, that is, you count pulling up in the moving van or painting the front door.

That’s because the Florezes closed on the house Friday, Sept. 4, and the transaction wasn’t recorded by the bank until four days later. Which is why Kate Florez received a call from the title company at 2:18 p.m. Tuesday, informing her of the great news. Congratulations, they said, the sale has been recorded “you’re a homeowner!”

It should have been a joyous occasion, a moment to celebrate. And it would have been, had the cute little manufactured starter home not been incinerated roughly five hours later in the Almeda fire. As it turned out, the Florezes — Kate is 24 and Austin is 25 — had only a few days to bask in the glow of their first major purchase as a married couple.

Still a few months shy of their third wedding anniversary in December, the Florezes were thrilled to get out of the renter’s game and find a home of their own that was between their places of work. Both 2020 Oregon Institute of Technology graduates, Kate Florez works at ColumbiaCare Services in Medford, and Austin Florez at Dragonfly Transitions in Ashland.

They struck a deal with the previous owners that allowed them to move into the house as temporary renters Sunday, after the closing documents were signed at Ticor Title in Medford but before all those signatures could be processed. They unloaded their moving van Sunday, relieved that a complicated process was all but over. They cleared every hurdle as it came, and for the Florezes it was all so new and grown-up — from the inspection to the repairs, negotiation, appraisal, and finally that big trip to an office for signatures.

“We had got a lot of amazing support from both of our families even though both of our families are back in Utah,” Kate Florez said. “So we were kind of doing it on our own up here, and it was one of our first adult things. We had both gone to college and rented a bunch, but signing on a house is a very adult thing, and we were so excited to get all of our stuff in there, and that’s obviously why we wanted to move as quickly as possible, wanted to decorate. And I had the paint all bought for our house.”

Then came Tuesday.

Florez stayed up late Monday evening painting the door, a long day that turned into the first and only night she would spend at her new home. The door was so red, she said, that it was almost painful to look at. So she decided to finish the job before bed, so they could return Tuesday after work and at least have an idea of how the rest of the house might come together around the new door paint. They both headed off to work at about 7:30 a.m. Tuesday and didn’t pay much attention to the news. New to the area, the Florezes had not even had time to sign up for Phoenix’s emergency alert system. It was only by happenstance that at about 12:30 p.m. Florez learned of a dangerous fire that had sprung up in Ashland — she overheard one co-worker talking to another while walking through a hallway.

Her first reaction was concern for her husband, but after she learned that he was driving to Klamath Falls and was well outside the danger zone, relief set in. Yes, reports seem to indicate that it was moving fast, that the wind was blowing hard, but Ashland is a long way from Phoenix.

But at around 3 p.m., Florez heard that the Almeda fire had reached Talent.

“And I was like, crap, I need to go and get our cat,” she said.

Florez jumped in her car and sped away from her work near the Medford airport and headed home, taking the back roads because Interstate 5 had already been shut down by then. She drove for 35 minutes before being turned around at a blockade. For the next two-and-a-half hours or so she zipped around the outskirts of Phoenix on the lookout for even the smallest, most obscure side street that might offer her safe passage, but the closest that got her to her cat, Obi (as in Obi Wan; Austin Florez had the dog, Finn), was right back on Highway 99. She was stuck at the corner of South Stage Road and Highway 99, still roughly half a mile from Obi, when things looked their bleakest.

“I was getting more and more frantic,” she said, “because the traffic was just horrible. There was standstill traffic miles behind the blockade and it was getting to the point now where I couldn’t even see 300 yards ahead of me because there was so much smoke. And it was starting to get dark, and I wasn’t able to get any (cell) service. And because I was driving, I couldn’t use my phone so I couldn’t see if the fires were closer.”

Desperate to save her cat and out of options, Florez begged a police officer guarding the road to let her through. No way, he said, Northridge Terrace has already been evacuated, everyone’s gone, you should get gone too, and fast. Florez tried again. The tears flowed. “I just need 30 seconds,” she pleaded.

That’s when the officer — Florez didn’t get his name but “really, really” wishes she would have — told her to get in the back of his squad car, and away they went. He used his high beams and still visibility was almost zero, Florez said, so they cut through the smoke slowly. But they found it.

“This is closer than I would ever feel comfortable going,” the officer told her, “you need to go and hurry. You have 30 seconds.”

Florez stepped out of the squad car and felt a heat surge that, she said, felt like a mid-day July sun, “about 100 degrees,” though it was around 6:30 p.m. She saw flames coming, too, but ignored that and followed the officer’s orders.

“The minute I pulled up to the house I knew that we were probably going to lose it,” she said, “but that was the least worrying thing right there. I just had to make sure that my family and my animals were OK.”

She ran up the driveway and tripped on the front steps — she wore high heels to work that day — but made it to the cat’s bed. Obi was fast asleep. Cats. She snatched him, “burritoed him up” and hustled back outside, past the stacks of unopened boxes that were about to become air pollution. On her frantic sprint back through the smoke, an alarm bell went off in Florez’s head, one common to new homeowners everywhere. “I forgot to lock the door!” She ran on and bookmarked the thought, gallows humor for a thousand retellings.

Florez and the officer made their way back to her car and she spent the rest of that night following every livestream she could find, including Facebook live broadcasts, the Rogue Valley Manor live video feed, other social media reports and the police scanner. Austin Florez was stuck in Ashland, and all the direct roads to and from were closed, so they texted and called back and forth as new information came in. Little did, but the manor’s webcam showed them all they needed to know.

“It was one of those things, on a hope and a prayer, the .00001% chance that it would survive,” Kate Florez said. “But we basically knew that night that our house was not going to be there in the morning.”

That was confirmed around noon Saturday, when the Florezes were escorted by a sheriff’s deputy to the property. They knew their chances were slim to none but didn’t realize how none until they saw Northridge Center, a large assisted-living facility located at the entrance to their dead-end street. Only its foundation was left. Farther down the road, a burned-out van stood out and obscured their view.

“So I kind of thought our house was there for a second,” Florez said, “but as we pulled up it was just leveled. There was nothing left.

“It was really, honestly, just surreal. There had been so much shock over the past couple days, and the idea that I just closed on something and it’s supposed to be mine, and I’ve just put all my worldly possessions into it and less than 24 hours later it’s probably gone. Everything is probably gone.”

Only the stone fountain that stood beside their front door and a steel flagpole in the front yard remained intact, and soon thereafter the Florezes added their own insurance claim to the mile-high stack.

If there’s a silver lining to losing a home hours after taking ownership, it’s that the house’s most recent appraisal is very recent indeed, which should eliminate at least one layer of red tape. Florez still expects to be playing phone tag with insurance agents and finding more short-term housing options in the coming months, if not years, but she has faith that it’ll all work out eventually. And her employer has offered the condominium until mid-October.

“They’ve received hundreds of claims over the last five, six days, and there’s going to be a lot of backflow and a lot of waiting until we can figure out what the timeline looks like for us,” Florez said. “That’s our biggest concern right now. We can’t stay at this condo forever ...and then we have to figure out what’s next. But that’s our next step right now — figuring out the necessities to get us by until then.”

Specifically, the everyday essentials. Kate Florez had some dress clothing — a couple blazers, some dresses and two pairs of heels. Austin Florez had the clothes he wore out the door that day and nothing else. Both have received a few donations from friends and family over the past week. Florez knows they’ll need more, but just doesn’t feel right about picking up supplies at one of the dozens of aid centers throughout Jackson County. She’s just happy Obi and Finn are OK.

“We’ve held off a little bit just because we know there’s so much more need than ours,” she said. “There are people with kids, there are elderly people and there’s a lot more families. Whereas we can get by on wearing the same clothes for a little bit of time.

“I feel like we’re luckier compared to other people.”

To contribute to the Florezes via Kate Florez’s Venmo account, send donations to @Kate-Christiansen-3.

Joe Zavala can be reached at 541-821-0829 or jzavala@rosebudmedia.com.

The stone fountain and the steel flagpole were the only recognizable features left after the Almeda fire burned through the Florezes' new home.(Photo by Kate Florez).