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Uncharted territory: realities of Almeda fire hit home

Holly Mask
Holly Dillemuth
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On one of the subsequent visits to her neighborhood follow-ing the Almeda Fire, Holly borrowed a gas mask to withstand the extremely poor air quality.

They left the groceries on the kitchen table on the afternoon of September 8, 2020. My parents and their dog then evacuated safely to my sister’s home in Klamath Falls. That night, my parents wanted answers about their home of more than thirty years. Three days later, my sister and I went home to find out what had transpired.

Coming home
The smoke was pungent—as thick as fog—and the atmosphere was eerily quiet on the streets of Phoenix.

After walking nearly two miles, navigating law enforcement checkpoints where we were nearly turned away, we continued on to face the losses we knew lie ahead.

On this day, I wasn’t reporting on someone else’s tragedy; I was living my own, and the lede wasn’t looking good.

As we made our way through neighborhoods that were closed off, my sister and her husband and I found ourselves in uncharted territory on so many levels. We were only a few blocks from the neighborhood where we grew up, but we were miles away from understanding the reality of what had happened.

Unconsciously, my steps quickened and I felt my feet start to run down the paved road.

I had to see if it was true—if the house I had called home since I was a young child was really gone.

Maybe the grandfather clock was still there, standing watch in the living room. Perhaps the cherry-colored piano that belonged to my grandmother was still anchored in the corner, covered by beloved framed photographs. Could it be that my mom’s garden was still blooming? And had the tulip tree, gifted to the family by my great-uncle, been spared?

I could only hope.

As I made my way down North Rose Street in Phoenix, the sight of a corner house that usually welcomed us into the neighborhood was laid bare along with those on either side of it. The ashen image stopped me in my tracks. It was then that I realized the gravity of our situation. I had been contacted a few days earlier with the news that our neighborhood had been hit by the fire, but nothing prepared me for what I saw.

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Holly Dillemuth
The remains of Holly's red wagon, a favorite toy. This was among the few visible possessions left behind at her parents' home following the Almeda Fire in Phoenix, Oregon.

At the time, I was a newspaper reporter in Klamath Falls, and I had reported on numerous house fires in my career. I’ve entered neighborhoods full of smoke with camera and notepad in hand, interviewing people young and old, on one of the worst days of their lives. But on this day, I wasn’t reporting on someone else’s tragedy; I was living my own, and the lede wasn’t looking good.

My sister and her husband weren’t far behind me. I felt the breath taken from me as I let out a cry.

Embracing among the ashes, there we were. Two sisters mourning a home lost forever; a home that was much more than just four walls. As my other sister put it, our home was “alive” with memories. And although we three sisters are now adults, our childhood home always felt like a refuge.

It was hard to tell at first what was lost. We could only imagine that beneath ash, wires, and oozing chemicals were photographs. Where there was a clock or a piano, now there were layers of twisted wire and ash, so much ash. The china cabinet’s contents were strewn about what was left of the house. We carefully gathered up dishes, plates, tea cups, anything we could salvage for our parents. These were the things we carried.

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Holly Dillemuth
China belonging to Holly’s parents was found intact following the Almeda Fire in Phoenix.

We only hoped that Annie, my parents’ cat, had escaped the flames. She was nowhere to be seen when my parents evacuated on September 8, but we would soon find that Annie’s disappearance was one of many silver linings.

In the weeks following the fire, we began noticing dishes of cat food left out in front of burned home sites. There were ongoing rescue efforts for cats in many neighborhoods, including ours.

Thankfully, my family connected online with a man named Shannon Jay, a law enforcement officer from California. Jay is a feline-friendly rescuer who saves cats following the most gruesome wildfires, including the Carr Fire in Paradise, California. He arrived in Phoenix shortly after the Almeda Fire and saved numerous cats in and around my family’s neighborhood, working with many other cat-lovers throughout the Rogue Valley.

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Annie is visible on a camera set up by Shannon Jay. Jay rescued numerous cats following the Almeda Fire in Phoenix.

Annie had hunkered down in the cul-de-sac down the street from the house and Jay had befriended her with the help of some cat treats. After 37 days in what Jay called the burn-zone, he reunited Annie with my family.

Moving on

At more than 20 years old, she somehow escaped the flames and continues to enjoy retirement in a high-rise cat bed, overlooking her temporary backyard at their rental house until the new one is rebuilt.

Jay recently traveled to Greenville to serve in the same way and my family is forever grateful.

As my Dad told me many times following the fire, he lost a lot of things – namely all of the inventions his father had made. Many of the items my parents lost are too special to mention.

But they gained a newfound appreciation for friends and family, neighbors helping one another, and perfect strangers pitching in when times got tough. My parents also rediscovered a truth they’d always held close, that memories, family, friends, and faith matter most for them.

One year later, it’s not always easy, but my parents are building new memories, literally and figuratively. And while my Dad often jokes that he wasn’t planning to have to rebuild his life during his retirement years, he also wasn’t sure what he was going to do with all of the stuff he had accumulated over the years. He likes to keep a sense of humor about things.

As they rebuild, they face uncertainty as they patiently navigate the construction delays many are dealing with in the Rogue Valley. But they are resilient people, even if they may not think so. As for me and my sisters, we are astounded by the many ways family and friends have rallied around us in the months since the fire.

Sharing stories

Perhaps you have a similar story to tell. Maybe you were evacuated and were able to return to your home, but you worry every time you hear of a red flag warning. Maybe your best friend’s house burned and it felt like your home, too. Maybe you lost everything and weren’t even able to grab even a photograph.

My hope for all, no matter how the fire impacted you, is that you cling to the memories of what was lost and find hope and resilience as you move forward.

What I do know for myself is that, in my mind, the memory of the grandfather clock is still there, standing watch in the living room. My grandmother’s cherry-colored piano that played so beautifully at the hands of family members is still playing in the corner, covered by beloved family photos.

Even after my parents’ home is rebuilt, in my mind I’ll always see the sight of my mom’s garden. It will still be blooming in the backyard near the tulip tree gifted to the family by my great-uncle. Images like these and many more haven’t gone away, they just live forever in our hearts.

Hold the memories close because they, unlike our earthly treasures, cannot burn away.

I would be honored to hear your story of the events that took place on September 8. How did that fateful day impact you? If you would like to share your story one year after the Almeda Fire, email me at holly.dillemuth@gmail.com.