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'We were the lucky ones’

Talent couple is the first to rebuild from the Almeda fire
Jamie Lusch / Mail TribuneZach Balzer, left, Carole Balzer and Alan Balzer share a moment Thursday in their new home in Talent.

Carole and Alan Balzer’s new house in Talent has given this community something to cheer about as it continues to reel from the devastation of the Almeda fire last summer.

The three-bedroom house a short distance from downtown Talent, with tall ceilings and a view of Roxy Ann Peak, has the distinction of being the first one in move-in condition since the fire, giving the Balzer’s a much better house than the one they lost.

“We’re bringing hope to the neighborhood,” said Carole.

Last Sept. 8, the Balzer’s two-story house burned to the ground along with a lot of other houses in Ashland, Talent, Phoenix and Medford.

While the fire is a tragedy for many local residents, the Balzers’ experience offers a glimmer of hope for a community ravaged by loss.

Charlie Hamilton, a local contractor with Suncrest Homes, said he had been easing into retirement when he saw his community suffering. Coincidentally, Hamilton named his company after the street where the Balzers live.

Hamilton said he wanted to do something to help the community, so he got his team together and they decided to put their efforts into what they do best.

“Let’s build houses,” he said.

But it has been an emotional time for many of the fire survivors as they negotiated the rebuilding effort. Hamilton helped guide them through the difficult process and found himself being both a counselor and contractor.

“I’ve had people sitting in the office, and they’re crying, they’re devastated,” Hamilton said. “Just seeing them coming out of this depression, this devastation, has been the most rewarding part of my career.”

Hamilton said he’s rebuilding some 20 houses right now mostly in the Talent area to replace those burned from the fire.

Over the next two years, Hamilton expects to build 30 to 40 houses to replace those that were lost.

“It’s a small drop in the bucket,” he said.

An estimated 2,500 residences were lost in the Almeda fire.

Hamilton said he was surprised to learn that the Balzers’ house is the first one to be ready to move into among the hundreds of homes under construction since the fire.

“It does give a sense of hope,” Hamilton said. “This is the first one done.”

Officials from Talent, Phoenix and Jackson County say that the Balzers are the first rebuilt house to get a certificate of occupancy.

On Thursday, he handed the Balzers the keys to their picture-perfect house, which just had the sod rolled out in the front yard that morning.

Hamilton said it’s been a tough time to rebuild because the cost of construction has escalated.

“Some people are just tapped out,” he said. “I have to eat it. What else are you going to do? They don’t have the money.”

But the Balzers say their insurance company has been good to work with, and they had just updated their policy a little over a year before the fire.

They said it has been difficult to make a list of everything they lost, from their TV to their tools.

“Sometimes I go to get a tool or something and realize I don’t have it anymore,” Alan said.

He said the insurance company has given them two years to compile the list of the things they’ve lost.

Because they’re getting older, the couple decided to rebuild a single-story house instead of replacing it with another two-story. The previous house had been built in 1997.

Most of their neighbors are also rebuilding. Just next door to the Balzers, the foundations have been poured for two other houses. Beyond their backyard, the pad has been prepared for a two-story house.

Alan said the fire has actually brought the community closer together.

“Last Christmas Eve, the whole neighborhood put out luminaries together,” he said. They said they expect the luminaries will be a new tradition for their neighbors and for them.

Their son, Zach, came down from Eugene to celebrate the new house with his parents.

The Balzers are moving into their home eight months after the fire, and construction on their home started last November.

Memories of the fire still linger, and the Balzers, like many other Southern Oregonians, are worried about the dangers of fire this summer, particularly after a dry winter.

Alan, who was working from home last Sept. 8, said he watched the flames advance for quite a while before he fled.

Carole tried to return home for two hours to gather some of their belongings, but it was chaos on the roads and she never made it back.

Alan, who didn’t have a car at home, eventually got a ride out from a neighbor.

“We didn’t know our house was gone until the next day,” he said.

Despite their hardships, the Balzers say they have weathered this situation well and are looking forward to settling into their new home.

“We were the lucky ones,” Alan said.

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