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Talent veteran negotiates the losses after Almeda fire

Allen Hallmark has endured his share of tragedies in his long life.

Now, at age 77, he is a survivor of the Almeda fire, which reduced his Talent house to ash.

“This is the second-worst thing to happen to me,” he said Thursday, while standing on the remains of his front porch. “I lost a 5-year-old son to a drowning in 1977.”

The fire and the other events of 2020 have hit him hard, creating new, painful memories.

“This is like PTSD,” said the Vietnam war veteran.

His former neighborhood, with its once tranquil backyards and friendly atmosphere, looks like a war zone. All 76 houses in the Oak Valley Community near downtown Talent were destroyed, along with the clubhouse.

Samaritan’s Purse, an international relief organization, was able to salvage a few mementos out of the ashes.

He pointed to some metal boxes, the interiors of which were incinerated in heat that melted aluminum.

Hallmark, like many of the residents of Oak Valley, escaped with only a few belongings.

Some, such as Hallmark, are going through the new pain of dealing with their insurance companies.

“State Farm has just been horrible,” Hallmark said.

He thought he had fairly good insurance, which covered up to $309,000 to rebuild the house and another $212,000 for personal belongings.

But he’s being offered $285,000 in total.

As a result, he’s hired an insurance adjustment firm to help negotiate a better settlement.

For everything over the $285,000, Hallmark keeps 60% and the adjuster gets 40%.

He said he knows of about a half-dozen other residents who are in a similar predicament.

State Farm issued a prepared response:

“We understand this is a difficult time for our customers and we are working directly with them to help explain their coverage and provide assistance as they recover from the recent wildfires,” it reads.

“Each claim is unique — based on the nature of the loss and the type of policy — and we handle each claim on its own merits. State Farm’s commitment to our customers is the same for all claims. That commitment is to pay what we owe promptly, courteously and efficiently.”

While his settlement is still up in the air, several residents in the 55-plus community have cleared their insurance hoops with other companies and are planning to rebuild.

“Other insurance policies paid off the whole thing,” he said. “Others, like myself, had to go through this painful process to figure out where we stand.”

Hallmark got a whiff of the impending tragedy around 11 p.m. the night before the Almeda fire roared to life Sept. 8.

“I was sitting in my easy chair, and it was a warm night,” he recalled. “I could smell the distinct smell of burning wood. I went to bed uneasy.”

Late the next morning, a neighbor was looking at the sky and saw a pretty big cloud of smoke coming this way, Hallmark said.

Soon, a buzz went through the neighborhood that an evacuation order had been given, and a patrol car came through warning people to leave immediately.

“I really worried about my neighbors who are in their 90s,” Hallmark said. They managed to escape.

Hallmark grabbed his laptop, camera, some clothes and an external hard drive, which he later found was corrupted. He also took his mother’s 1960 Leica camera.

He drove up to the pharmacy in Talent to get some medication.

With the fire now advancing toward his town, he headed up Highway 99 toward Phoenix, but the road by then was crammed with cars.

He eventually made his way to the home of friends in west Medford.

“They took care of me for three weeks,” he said.

Afterward, he called his real estate agent to see what was available.

“I thought I needed to buy something instead of rent,” he said.

Eventually he found a 1,500-square-foot apartment on Stevens Street in Medford. A friend loaned him $130,000 to buy the apartment while he dealt with his insurance settlement.

He said he might just end up staying in the apartment because it is more comfortable than he expected and he enjoys his neighbors.

“I don’t think I’m going to go ahead and rebuild unless I get sick of living in the apartment,” he said. “I’ll hold on to this lot until the market rebuilds.”

He said much of Oak Valley sits in the floodplain of Bear Creek. If a new house is built on his lot, he said, it would likely have to be 2 feet higher than before.

While he contemplates his future, Hallmark said 2020 has been one of the worst years of his life.

Despite a roller coaster of a year, Hallmark said others have endured worse. Some who were burned out had no insurance or high insurance deductibles. Some had lost jobs due to COVID, and others may be homeless.

He praised a bereavement support group called Circle of Friends, organized by the South Mountain Friends Meeting of Ashland. Circle of Friends is reaching out to folks who lived in the neighborhoods of north Ashland, Talent and Phoenix to help survivors deal with the complex emotions that arise from losing their homes but also losing whole neighborhoods.

“I want to thank Becky Hale, Jennie Stout, Elizabeth V. Hallett and Ellen Craine, the volunteer facilitators from Circle of Friends who are helping our Oak Valley Community residents come to grips with their losses and their PTSD that has resulted from this terrible fire and its aftermath,” Hallmark said.

With a pandemic and political upheaval marking the year, Hallmark, a well-known local Democrat, said he hopes next year will improve for himself and his neighbors.

“I know very well that I am one of the lucky ones who lost homes to the Almeda fire,” he said. “I was well-insured, had good friends who were willing to provide me a safe and secure place to live until I found a new home and had lots of support from many other friends locally and in several other states, including my native Texas.”

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or dmann@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @reporterdm.

Allen Hallmark talks about the day of seeing the Almeda fire approach his Talent home that was lost in the flames.{ }Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune