Almeda fire victim remembered as a hero
PHOENIX — When the Almeda fire roared toward Talent and Phoenix the afternoon of Sept. 8, high winds and a lack of warning for the thousands of homes tucked between Highway 99 and Interstate 5 created a life-threatening disaster in mere minutes.
Donald Schmidt, an Army veteran and Phoenix resident who perished in the fire after helping to evacuate friends and neighbors, sent his wife and two of the couple’s dogs to get away from the smoke and danger after his stepson called to warn of a large fire getting dangerously close to their home.
Zach Bulebar of Central Point remembers feeling immediately concerned when he heard reports of the fire that began near the southern end of Ashland. Like many in Southern Oregon, he said he had been shocked at the devastation of the Paradise fire in November 2018, which killed 86 people and destroyed over 18,000 structures.
“I saw what happened in Paradise and just remember thinking, ‘Wow.’ We all saw the devastation there and never, ever thought something like that could happen here. It’s really still hard to believe it actually happened,” said Bulebar.
While no emergency alerts went out via cellphone or on television, he urged his parents to evacuate, “just to be on the safe side.”
“I had been kind of following fire pretty early on through social media. A local news channel had a webcam that was kind of looking down. I thought it had to be farther down at Talent when it had actually made it all the way to Phoenix pretty quickly,” he said.
“I called my mom and asked if she’d heard about the fire. She said she had wondered about all the smoke. I told her it looked like there was a fire coming and that it seemed to be approaching pretty quick. She wanted to wait for the 4 o’clock news — this was at 2:45 p.m. She said, ‘Everything seems pretty normal, and we haven’t had any warnings or anything like that.’
“But at that point I was telling her, ‘No, this seems like something bad is happening and I think you need to get out.”
Unbeknownst to Bulebar, his stepfather stayed behind to keep an eye on things and prevent spot fires around the couple’s home inside Bear Lake Estates. Less than an hour after his mother, Lisa Schmidt, left the park, flames reached the community.
Schmidt tried to call her husband around 3 p.m.
“When her call went straight to voicemail, that was our first indication that something was not good. Don had had a stroke before and was having some issues,” said the son.
“I think everyone was kind of hopeful he got out and just hadn’t contacted anyone yet. We called all the hospitals and went to The Expo to look for him. Don would have called pretty soon after the fire to let her know he was OK. We thought he could have been injured and maybe he just couldn’t talk. Your mind goes through all the scenarios.”
Within days of the fire, Bulebar said, local police and FBI visited the park and located Schmidt’s body in his burned-out home. By his side were the remains of his 16-year-old German shepherd mix, a rescue dog named Roxanne who was the lone survivor when she and her littermates were thrown off a bridge at a few weeks of age.
As word of Schmidt’s death began to spread, neighbors reached out to tell stories of the chaotic moments when the fire destroyed the community along I-5. First responders reportedly arrived as flames reached the park and stayed until the entire 210-unit community had become completely engulfed.
Neighbors said Schmidt and a few others helped evacuate neighbors on scooters, golf carts and on foot while dousing flames with garden hoses.
“My mom is completely devastated. It’s all been very emotional. She felt like, ‘I could lose my home but I can’t lose my best friend and the love of my life at the same time,” said Bulebar.
“She felt like everything would be OK if she still had him. They’d been together for 15 years.”
Lisa Schmidt, in a written statement, said she was not surprised to hear that her husband spent his final moments helping to save lives.
“We had a house fire three years ago and he saved it, got it out with the hose. He was always my hero,” she said.
“Before we knew about this fire, Zach called me and said he wanted us to leave, and Don said for me to go and he would stay and defend our home like he did before, if he had to. Never thought right? That is what it came to ... he was helping out his fellow neighbors. He was generous to a fault, always there to help anyone in need.”
Bulebar said stories offered by neighbors have been a small comfort to the grieving family.
“I almost cried tears hearing about that yesterday when I found out but it also kind of made more sense because we could see Don doing that,” he said.
“Maybe he saw how serious the fire was going to be and he saw people trying to get out. He risked his own life to help them, but we’re thinking maybe he ran to get his dog out and the smoke got to him.”
Bulebar said the family hopes to share Schmidt’s story and to find out why emergency alerts had not gone out before the fire reached their community. Schmidt, who was 55, is remembered as caring and a funny man who loved to laugh and joke around.
“Don was an incredible guy who went out of his way to help anybody he could that needed help, even at his own expense. He had a lot of humor, lots of jokes, just loved to have a good time,” Bulebar said.
“It’s been really rough trying to cope with things as best as possible. A lot of people lost so much. We’re trying to be there for my mom as she rebuilds her life without Don.”
Bulebar said the family hopes to find answers about the shortcomings with the regional EAS system.
“The emergency alert system is designed to warn people to be able to get out of harm’s way, and it seems like it wasn’t utilized. We need some more answers on that, and we’d like to hear how we’re going to prevent something like this from happening again,” Bulebar said.
“I don’t want to see what happened to my mother, and to Don, happen to somebody else.”
Friends have started a GoFundMe page for Don Schmidt’s family at https://bit.ly/30fCMMo
Reach freelance writer Buffy Pollock at email@example.com.