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Regina Boykins' surprising return home

Regina Boykins doesn’t have a GoFundMe account, but when you remember the Almeda fire and all the stories that have been told since, I’m hoping you’ll remember hers, too.

Her own escape began at 11:28 a.m. the day of the fire, Sept. 8, when she received a Nixle alert from the city of Ashland warning her that flames were en route and she was under a Level 3 “go” evacuation order. And her tale ended in about the same spot six days later.

That’s roughly when I pulled into the Bear Creek Mobile Home Park on the north end of Ashland, just off the freeway, past the cavity where Burger King once stood — right about where the Almeda fire started gobbling up homes on its destructive path north. I knew what to expect when I arrived after having seen video footage of the fire’s destruction, but the sight still caught me off-guard.

I saw steel frame foundations twisted like black licorice, burned-up cars, spray-painted numbers on driveways to help orient search crews and homeowners, an untouched cat food can left out for somebody’s lost pet, and so much ash and soot.

The phrase “war zone” had by then already become the go-to descriptor. Having never known war, I can’t say that’s exactly right, but I’ve seen plenty of sooty campfire pits, and Bear Creek Mobile Home Park certainly resembled one of those, just bigger.

I was supposed to meet Boykins, but she was running late, so I conducted a little self-guided tour in my minivan, bumping over dead, downed powerlines and trying not to spook the cadaver dog sniffing around.

Boykins has the kind of story that, as soon as she starts talking you don’t really want to know the rest. We’ve all heard a lot of those the past few weeks, and here’s hers.

She and her husband, Steve, lived in a cute house above the Plaza that was a dead weight on their shoulders mortgage wise, so they decided to fix it up and sell it. Steve, a loud, no-nonsense 6-foot-7 tornado of energy, was the kind of character who could only call Ashland home. As a lover of all living things, he was careful to let even the bugs live out their little lives as nature intended. And as a lover of soccer and a local coach, he had no qualms about chasing referees across the field and, at least once, over a fence to argue a call he disagreed with.

Vigorous in all areas, Steve set his mind to refurbishing the little Craftsman-style, even as cancer whittled him down to skin and bones. He died about two years ago, not long after the house was finished for the Realtors, and the Ashland soccer community came out in full force for the memorial service Boykins arranged at Walter A. Phillips Field. The group formed a circle and told stories about their friend. He said it like it was, they said. He had a teacher’s heart, they said. Then they broke out the cones and played the sport he loved.

Boykins sold the house and six months later was happy to find a soft landing in a tiny single-wide, one of 69 trailers in the Bear Creek Mobile Home Park. Of course, you knew where this story was going from the beginning, so I’ll just get to it.

I looked around some more then checked the text messages I had received from her to make sure I wasn’t missing something, because it was becoming clear that I must have. I was heading back up to the park’s entrance on Corral Lane when a man I spoke to earlier who seemed to know his way around the place flagged me down. “I found her,” he said. “Just head all the way down, the last spot.”

The road snaked north and I continued to marvel at the ashtray ruins. Though I knew Pacific Power crews had cut off the juice, I clinched my teeth as I rolled over powerline after powerline. The road eventually descended a steep slope, to Boykins. I was in the exact spot where, six days prior, she had hit a wall of smoke in her 2008 Toyota Tacoma while attempting to follow a neighbor to safety. She didn’t want to risk accidentally running over somebody or driving directly into the flames, so Boykins decided to park at the top of the hill and come up with a plan.

“I didn’t see anybody else around,” she said. “I said to myself, ‘where is everybody?’ And then from a lower path, different people came.”

A group formed there, including a family with two kids. There were eight of them in all, and they decided collectively to run for it, past Bear Creek and toward the highway. The rest of her story is like many of the others you’ve probably heard by now. They made it to the creek, then charged ahead through thick brush and blackberry bushes — she lifted her pant legs to show me the scratches, still healing — until they found Highway 99 and some police officers directing traffic.

From there, it was a squad-car ride to Ray’s Food Place in Phoenix. Boykins’ brother lived on Northridge Terrace, so she headed there to help him evacuate. By then, she’d figured her house was toast, that she was already a 55-year-old homeless woman. She called a sheriff that night to try to arrange an escort to take her to her place, to protect what was left from the looters who were already busy giving humans a bad name.

“Sorry,” he told her, “all the homes there burned down.”

She saw for herself the next day. Nobody was really supposed to be there, Boykins said, but the park’s former residents were there anyway, using sticks to poke around the ashes. Their presence was the only way to protect what was left from thieves. The path she took through the park was probably the same one I took less than a week later, so I can at least attest to the visceral feeling she described to me that nothing about this made sense, and it still didn’t make sense on the Monday that I pulled in to see for myself. I pulled up to the slope that led down to her spot, the same slope where she had first seen with her own eyes what had been reported to her the previous night.

“I was in shock,” she said.

On one side of the cul-de-sac stood the blackened remains of a shed, and next to that a pitched tent. Tall trees lined the street, the tops of which were singed and crispy. And on the left side of the street stood Boykins’ tiny place, behind her neighbor’s trailer. The trailer was charred a little on one side but otherwise fine, and Boykins’ house was — and I still can hardly believe it even as I type this — completely, utterly, impossibly untouched. The paint was still a sharp, crisp tan. Her deck’s dark brown stain was true, and the flowers that decorated the space next to the stairs that led to her front door remained a vibrant orange — possibly the only naturally occurring color in a 3-mile radius.

No sane person looking at her house from just below the deck would suspect that a slight head turn to the right would reveal a charred, hollowed-out tree no more than 30 feet away, or that just to the left sat a melted basketball hoop beside Boykins’ driveway entrance. Even the plastic compost tumbler and Rubbermaid storage shed alongside her house looked like she’d just picked them up at Lowe’s.

“I walked around and nothing was burned,” she said. “Nothing was burned.”

How could this happen? Boykins’ theory is that her house was saved by a couple of coincidences that worked together in her favor. Perhaps, she says, the home’s position at the bottom of the hill combined with favorable wind patterns so that the strong gusts that drove the fire so violently north also carried all those red-hot coals directly over her home.

Boykins was told by a neighbor before that first trip back that her house had somehow survived, was one of three in the park that had, but she was still shocked to see it. Almost as shocked as when she came upon the little parking lot at the head of the park where she had abandoned her Tacoma and found it still sitting there, covered in ash but fine. Several other cars parked in the same lot were burned down to the frames. Boykins has no theory about that one.

Her life won’t return to normal anytime soon, despite the good fortune. She’s bunking in the back of her store in the railroad district, the Spirit of Shakti, and probably will be for some time, which is why we loaded up everything she needed to do life (she doesn’t feel safe staying in an otherwise empty mobile home park). Except for some rotten food, it was all exactly as she had left it. But the fire that derailed thousands of lives in a matter of hours somehow missed one person who happened to be directly in its path, who was being chased by it and from it and who had no reason to believe that anything she owned would survive that furnace. But it all did.

When we look back on September 2020, the staggering number of losses to the Almeda fire will probably always be the first thing that comes to mind. Three lives, 2,490 residential structures and another 164 businesses at last count. But remember Boykins, too. Sometimes this world doesn’t seem to make any sense. As somebody who watched her husband die, Boykins probably knows that better than most.

In a way, 2020 has been like that road through Bear Creek Mobile Home Park: slate gray, lifeless, lonely. Poke around and maybe you’ll find a ring, if you’re lucky. We think, “Where did it all go?” Here’s hoping we’ll pull up to a slope soon, look down and see something that we can hardly fathom: A cute little house, a rose bush, color, life.

Or, minus the metaphor, a little something I like to call 2021.

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

Regina Boykins talks on the phone on the deck of her house in the Bear Creek Mobile Home Park, Sept. 14 in Ashland. (photo by Joe Zavala)