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Father and son roll up their sleeves

Adan and his father, Matias Mendez, rebuilt their home after the Almeda fire

After spending the holidays following the 2020 Almeda fire sleeping in cars and couch surfing before finding a temporary rental, Phoenix High School junior Adan Mendez and his family are happily settling into their new home.

Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune Adan Mendez and his father, Matias Mendez, at the entrance of the home they rebuilt together in Phoenix.

Adan and his father, Matias Mendez, cleaned up the burned-out site of their longtime house on Arana Drive and, unable to find affordable — or available — help to rebuild, took matters into their own hands.

With such turmoil in the community after the devastating fire — and the majority of the school district’s students rendered suddenly homeless — the one-year anniversary of the fire that destroyed more than 2,600 homes between Ashland and Medford passed this fall with many of those families still trying to figure out what’s next.

“It was a really big tragedy, and most of the students in our school lost their homes. It all happened really fast. We didn’t really think our house would be affected, and we mostly were thinking about having to evacuate for a little while and go to my grandparents’ house in Talent,” said the 16-year-old Adan.

“We thought it would be OK. I remember we said, ‘Let’s just wait the fire out and see how it all goes.’”

With much of his extended family, including his grandparents in Talent, losing their homes to the fire, Adan said nearly everyone he knew ended up couch surfing or sleeping in cars or shelters in the immediate aftermath.

“There was just so much adrenaline at the time, it was a such a shocking moment to process. It was hard to believe it was the last time we might see our home, and then everyone I knew was suddenly homeless. My parents bought our house in 2000, before I was born,” Adan said.

“My mom had been in Mexico at the time, because she had just lost her grandfather. My dad works for the city, so he had to evacuate people and help with what the city needed. It was a crazy time.”

Once they began navigating insurance paperwork and grappling with the day-to-day challenges of losing their home, Adan’s parents realized skilled labor and construction supplies were in limited supply. Having spent years working together on remodeling and home-repair jobs as a side gig, Adan and his dad, who is the city of Phoenix public works superintendent, decided they stood a better chance of rebuilding the home themselves.

A busy honor-roll student and multisport athlete, Adan didn’t hesitate.

“We started in March 2020 with the plans and getting things approved. We cleaned it up ourselves, which was pretty fast once we knew what to do with the debris. We did all the pad work for the foundation, the plumbing, electrical and all the finish work. We finished the whole outside and painted everything,” Adan said.

Matias Mendez said he could not have rebuilt the family’s home without his son. The pair spent nearly a year’s worth of evenings and 12-hour weekend shifts to reconstruct the home.

“At first I said, ‘No, let’s wait to hire somebody and get it done, but we asked people and they were gouging prices. Nobody was looking for work because everyone needed help at the same time. I know the market, so I’d ask for pricing and it was just too much. I felt like we could put some money in our pockets and do it ourselves and get it done sooner,” said the father.

“(Adan) decided he was OK to take a break for a year from sports. He said, ‘Dad, I’m good with that. Let’s do it.’ I talked to my city manager and said I’m going to be taking Fridays off to build my house with my son. … We worked every weekend from dusk to dawn.”

A final hurdle, Matias Mendez was injured just weeks before finishing the house.

“I got hurt in September. I had a little bit of pain for a couple weeks, but we were almost done with the house so we were able to keep going. I let it heal up a bit and then finished the house before I had to get surgery,” he said.

“We’re really proud of what we did. Adan did a lot of work on the house. He’s a really hard worker. We had been working on houses for other people the past five years. Now it was time for us to build our own house.”

Phoenix High teacher Wendy Hernandez said that even with so much going on in Adan’s life, his school performance was unaffected. Hernandez estimated 98% of her students lost their homes in the Almeda fire.

“Adan is in my first period of the day, meaning he has to get up and get here, and I don’t think he’s missed more than one class in a year. He works really hard in my class and works great in a group. He’s just an amazing kid. We would talk about the house a lot. He would come to school and have a great attitude and then go home every day and work on rebuilding his home,” Hernandez said.

“He’s always got a smile on his face. I think he’s got a lot of desire to make things better instead of being one of those ‘Dang, this happened and now there’s nothing we can do,’ kind of people.”

When all was said and done, Adan would miss two years of football, one year of basketball and nearly a year’s worth of normal “high school kid stuff.” He said he has no regrets.

Finally able to slow down, just a little, he has a new appreciation for simple moments at home with his family.

“One thing I really took away from everything that’s happened is to appreciate what you have and who you share it with,” said the teen.

“There are so many little things in life that maybe at the time you take for granted. Sometimes when we were trying to rebuild, I would think, ‘Man, I wish I had my nice, warm bed or blanket like before.’ But now, falling asleep on the couch watching a movie and just being in my house with my family, I really cherish those moments and that time even more than I did before.”

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