“Talent and Phoenix are gone Jim”
I live in Ashland and was working when the fires broke out, from my home office, as were all my employees at Project A, because of COVID and we are programmers and engineers, so working from home is easy.
I first found out about the fire via a Facebook alert. Over the next several days, I got all my updates from FB and texts from friends and family.
I know this is a business journal but these fires hit too close to home. 3 of my employees lost their homes. Countless friends and acquaintances lost their homes. Many small businesses that I support burned to the ground. So this section will be a reposting of sorts of news and updates from FB posts.
It’s important to keep in mind as well that I own Ashland Home Net and Rogue Broadband and keeping the internet up was important so I had to balance that with caring for my employees and friends. Once the realization of how lucky we were in Ashland and unlucky they were in Talent in Phoenix the story changes. After I felt we had the network up and running I focused on the disaster. Not just for my employees and friends but the entire community.
This is post-event story telling which might be hard to follow and if your friends on FB, it’s a recap of much you already saw.
I’ll also include photographs from friends and people that posted photos (and gave me permission to include here). They were the eyes and boots on the ground for me while I did what I could from my home office.
We were told by the national weather service that high winds and low humidity were the perfect firestorm system and to be on alert.
The winds were so strong that trees were blown over on roads. Here is a photo I took from the car while trying to drive to the office. This was the day before the fire.
On September 8th, the conditions were the same. A hot day with high winds of 40 MPH were blowing and very low humidity created the mix that only needed a small fire to turn into a horrific one.
My first alert came in from my friend Tony and his wife Robin Akpan. They started live streaming about a fire near their home.
Having 3 businesses in Ashland, I told my wife that we needed to be ready to evacuate employees to safety and also prepare for internet outages.
I started keeping an eye on the Akpan posts because they were live streaming during the whole thing. I searched other sources for info and couldn’t find anything, so Tony’s posts were my best news feed. He was the embedded reporter.
They were driving back to their house to make sure they could protect it in case the fire started toward it.
When they got to the house, Tony jumped on the roof to protect it with the hose.
He was live streaming the whole time and his audience grew of fearful and concerned friends.
Meanwhile, Brandon, my network engineer at Project A, lives and was working from him home in Talent.
He saw the writing on the wall and evacuated to a mutual friends farm guest house near Jacksonville.
Then the power went out at the farm house and he was running on battery.
Then other employees started evacuating, because they were being told to. Immediately.
I was getting updates from each as they fled as best they could but it was chaos on the roads.
I downloaded a police scanner app and started listening to the chaos as the calm dispatchers were trying to get fire departments to the fire and police to the evacuation areas. I have never listened to the scanners before and it was amazing how calm everyone stayed and yet how frantic it was.
By 2PM the flames had made it to Tony’s fence line. They were pulling water from the jacuzzi with buckets trying to douce the flames.
By this time, I knew it was too late and my heart sank for them and I just wanted them to get to safety.
At 4pm we had power outages and internet service interruptions so I headed into the office to coordinate. This is our standard operating procedure.
What I didn’t know was that I5 had been closed and everyone was diverted into Ashland. The roads were clogged with people coming off the freeways and many had made it out to our office, some 3 miles from the freeway offramp.
My parking lot was full of trucks and cars when I got there.
I saw some friends that are in the fair food business and they couldn’t get home, so they thought they could spend the night in our parking lot.
I had to coordinate getting the internet stable and focused on that the best I could. We got very lucky that we had access to internet techs that were on the south side of the valley and deployed them to divert the internet traffic south away from the fire. This move saved us as the fire raged out of control all night and melted fiber lines along its path northbound.
I received my first alert from the county that something was going on.
Not understanding the scope of the issue and seeing all the people that were prepared to sleep in their cars in our parking lot, my wife and I opened our home and fed the stranded travelers.
I was focused on barbecuing for a now very full house (my sister’s adult children and their cats evacuated to our house as well) of friends, family and strangers.
I didn’t have access to FB or news during this and I didn’t know how bad things were getting.
At some point in the night, my sister showed up. I offered her a drink and a hug and that’s when she told me “Talent and Phoenix are gone Jim”.
I didn’t understand. I texted Brandon and he said he was ok, but he believed his house was gone.
I texted Madeline and she told me her house was gone.
I texted Collin and didn’t get a reply.
I serve on the Jackson County Fair Board and knew the Expo would become an evacuation center. It’s at the other end of the valley, so I couldn’t get there to help with I5 closed.
I knew Helen and her amazing team would have it under control.
Somehow, Steve, my sisters husband was able to get refugees that were at Ashland High School all day from Ashland to the Expo by taking backroads with fires burning all around him.
I serve on the Rogue Valley Manor board. All the residents had to be evacuated.
I had a sense of helplessness and didn’t sleep well that night.
When I awoke and saw the aftermath of what happened I was stunned.
I spent the morning reaching out to employees, friends, clients and community leaders.
I spent time on Facebook looking for anyone that was needing help to provide help and finding ways to get them the help they needed.
The expo had over 2,000 refugees that first night, sleeping in cars and on cots. Animals where housed in emergency pens setup by the FFA and 4H families.
The next few days are a blur. I didn’t sleep or eat well and did everything I could to find relief and support for anyone that needed it and we needed to keep the internet working.
The fire wiped out internet for Phoenix, Talent and Ashland if you were on Charter/Spectrum. Our service on the Ashland Fiber Network survived the fire storm. Rogue Broadband was still up but needed some repair. My team was on it and had us back to full service in a few hours.
We got lucky. 3 employees lost their homes but they were ok.
I focused on their needs. I didn’t hear from Collin but saw a post from him playing music in the ashes of his home, so I knew he was ok.
The chaos of love and support that flowed toward all those in need was overwhelming.
It felt like a firehose. Paul Steele created a system for person to person need exchange and we launched it as soon as we could.
We stood up free hot spots for people so that they could sit in their car and check email, file claims, let people know they were ok, or just watch a movie on Netflix.
The outpouring of support has been very heartwarming. There are groups focused on helping the massive number of undocumented living in Phoenix.
I have never been in a disaster before and I am learning as we go.
We focused on helping those in need with immediate shelter, food and clothing until the relief efforts came from the Red Cross and FEMA. It took them over a week to get here.
Once the immediate needs were being taken care of, I focused on short term housing.
Brandon will stay in Andrews guest house for a while and we re-homed Madeline, her boyfriend and their 3 dogs into a rental Dena and I had available. Sadly Collin was overwhelmed by the loss of the fire, quit his job and is moving out of the area.
We are working hard to find housing for everyone, so that they won’t leave the area. The valley needs every employee we have.
I serve on the People’s Bank Board and we had voted to donate $1 Million to the relief efforts. The employees added $250,000 to that by forgoing their bonuses for the year. The employee fund was earmarked for hotel rooms and the bank has started working on immediate short term housing projects.
The Manor residents raised over $200,000 for the employees impacted by the fire.
The Rogue Credit Union raised over $1 million from other credit unions and members.
I have been in meetings with the Red Cross and FEMA and learning as such as I can so that I can help in the long recovery process.
The Southern Oregon Entrepreneur to Entrepreneur group has come together to provide help from the small business community side.
I’m finding people online that help other people and I offer my help to them.
One of them, she doesn’t want to be named right now, manages lists of needs every day for different centers around the valley and email blasts the needs to others to get them taken care of. The process was hard and cumbersome for her so we wrote an app to help her. DonationConnection.org
It’s the best I can do right now.
It’s going to take years to rebuild and I don’t have all the answers, but I know we will rebuild and come out better and stronger on the other side.
Current Aftermath Estimates:
42,000 people displaced
4,000 suddenly homeless with an immediate need for shelter and food
At some local schools, nearly 70% of families have lost their homes.
2,300+ residential structures burned (homes, mobile homes, apartments)
Hundreds of Businesses Destroyed.
By Jim Teece
Southern Oregon Business Journal