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Bike shop owner works to rebuild

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Firebird Bike Shop owner Dale Griffith, left, helps a customer Sunday morning with a bike at the former location of his home and business in Phoenix that was lost in September during the Almeda Fire. Photo by Denise Baratta
Dale Griffith, right, helps Dave Watts of Medford with a wheel repair at his pop-up bike shop Firebird Bikes, located at it's former site, before taken in the Almeda Fire, on Highway 99 in Phoenix. Photo by Denise Baratta

PHOENIX — When Dale Griffith opened his Firebird Bike Shop a dozen years ago, he never imagined the real life experience that would one day force him, and so many others, to rise from the proverbial ashes like the legendary bird for which his business was named.

Griffith was busy working on repairs and tending to customers last Sept. 8, when the Almeda fire roared south along the Bear Creek Greenway, burning huge swaths of Phoenix and Talent. Griffith lost his shop, his nearby home and the camaraderie of neighboring businesses he’d grown accustomed to at his South Pacific Highway location.

“Jantzer (Automotive) and the guys in the body shop next door, myself and two volunteer firemen were all fighting the blaze with a water truck that Jantzer just bought that same morning because he was gonna be doing some dirt work,” Griffith said.

“When that didn’t work out, and the fire was too much, I grabbed half a truck worth of stuff and got out. We knew it would all be gone, so we were all looking at each other pretty sad. I was one of the last cars on the road after everybody had made their mad scramble out.”

“I don’t really do social media,” he said, “and I didn’t get any emergency notifications. I was just working away, helping customers before all that. Suddenly the fire trucks were going by and all the cars were going the other way.”

Now, nine months later, Griffith said it is high time to fight for some semblance of normal. A bike repair guru since elementary school, he’s always been hardwired to be a fixer.

“In fifth grade, I took my desk out of my bedroom, took it outside and dumped out the protractors and pencils and filled it full of tools and bike parts. … and I was in business,” he said with a laugh.

“My study desk turned into a toolbox, and my mom said, ‘Well, I guess he’s a mechanic.’”

Over the years, Griffith has run a few different shops, including Recycles Bikes in Central Point and Griff’s in Rogue River. When he opened Firebird a dozen years ago, the moniker seemed more like an ode to his new hometown than a forecast of eventual tragedy.

“My house was right there. My garage, where my ‘68 Firebird was parked, was right there. … All my neighbors and friends, they were all around here, too. It’s all just gone,” Griffith pointed out on a recent afternoon.

Following the fire, looters had to be chased from properties in the area, including the bike shop, and any surviving memorabilia or property were stolen in the weeks following. More than anything, Griffith misses his neighbors and a sense of place.

“It’s strange to see all the business signs that are still standing. Signs, up and down the highway, but no businesses left. It’s really sad to think how much was here for it to have disappeared in one swoop,” he said.

Accepting, for now, his new digs in the Southern Oregon RV Park at The Expo, he’s been working for another local bike shop — longtime competitor Al’s Cycle and Hobby — since the fire. But every Sunday for the last several weeks, Griffith’s near-60-year-old self does a little bit of the legendary rising he’s been hearing so much about since last September.

Setting up shop on the patch of soot-covered land where his shop once stood, he works under a small shade tent, bikes lined up nearby. He fixes bikes, disassembles others for parts, visits with community and waves to whoever drives by and honks.

“My clientele is a big reason why I’m out here. It’s a sort of healing for the soul. Kind of finding out where people are since the fires and letting them know I’m OK," he said.

"I’m kind of a service to the community — the only one who gives discounts to low-income people who can't afford much. It’s important for me to be back here."

Working at Al’s, Griffith said, he’d made good on his promise to himself to “get back to it” by the six-month anniversary of the fire.

“I took a minimum wage job to get by, but I have to do something to start rebuilding. I told my employer I’d give him a year, and I just recently hit the six-month mark,” he said.

With infrastructure in question and the rebuilding process uncertain, Griffith said he’s brainstorming a mobile “taco truck-style” bike repair service. Dropping off donated bikes on a recent weekend, former Phoenix resident Randy Gundlach said it was encouraging to see Griffith back where he belongs.

Several months after the fire, Gundlach and other community members helped facilitate cleanup of Griffith’s site and helped network when an illegally parked flatbed trailer was blocking his parcel.

“We’ve all been trying to drop off bikes for Dale to fix and sell. It’s really good to just see him out here again. When I saw that he was trying to keep going, I just got on Facebook and put a notice out to my friends that I had a friend who lost his shop. We’ve loaded a trailer up twice with old Schwinns, mountain bikes, BMX,” Gundlach said.

“When you see somebody in the community that’s been here a long time, and this is a guy who would come down to the parades on an antique bicycle, somebody who would do anything for somebody who needed it … it’s our turn to do the same for him.”

To live up to his name, and to keep serving his community, Griffith said he’ll rebuild, one bike repair at a time.

“The firebird is supposed to come out of the flames and create something new, so I figured I’d better get to it,” he said.

“I think we’re all just trying to find our way, rise from the ashes, so to speak. … You’ve got to move on. What else is there to do?”

Griffith can use donations of tools to rebuild his business and any type of bikes, old or new. To contact Griffith, visit his former shop location, at 3995 S. Pacific Highway, between the hours of 9 a.m. and 4 p.m., every Sunday.

To schedule a donation of bikes, call 541-613-8929.

Monetary donations can be made in person or via PayPal. Email him at Firebirdbike@gmail.com.

Reach freelance writer Buffy Pollock at buffyp76@yahoo.com.