On Monday morning, September 15, 2014, Siskiyou County was buffeted by battering winds. In Fort Jones, west of Yreka, I felt like Dorothy in Kansas as I tried to scatter feed to the chickens. I thought wind like this will start something, and hoped we would get to the end of the day with no new fires. Fire season was still raging with many county fires still going, even after the previous week’s much needed rain. Later I got a call from a friend who had heard that Weed was on fire. Photos and videos were posted on the Internet almost immediately and the world watched in real time as this little town in Siskiyou County battled for its life.
After many hours of grueling fire-fighting, the news was astonishing. With 150 structures lost in a neighborhood of schools full of children and many homes, not one life was lost. That one fact is the thing every citizen of Weed clings to in amazement.
I visited Weed three times after the fire. I spoke to many people and the stories they told are hair-raising in their details.
Bill Moreno, an affable life-long Weed citizen in his 50’s was driving to his home on Spur Street when the fire started. As he drove up North Davis Street, he and his wife Theresa retrieved their dog and Theresa’s violin and sped back down the hill to safety. Bill ran back up the hill to his home and grabbed a garden hose to fight the fire blazing on a fence across the street. Explosions from propane tanks and BBQ grills added to the chaos and confusion of the evacuation. Friends were fleeing their homes on the narrow streets of his old neighborhood. Bob Hodges, a neighbor whose garage was on fire, was leaving his home on foot with his 12 foot Albino Burmese Python and his lizard. Bill loaded him in another vehicle and took him and his pets to safety. He returned up the hill once again to fight the fire when a fireman spotted him with the garden hose managed to joke, “Quit pissing on the fire” as he handed him a fully charged fire hose. Bill stayed all afternoon and managed to save three houses, his included. At one point, he heard the sound of a low flying plane and cheered as the plane dumped the red borate fire retardant right on top of him and the surrounding homes.
Still clearly rattled a week after the fire, Bill vacillated between euphoria and despair as he described life-long friends who lost their homes in their tight knit neighborhood. “It was like a war zone with explosions and helicopters flying low overhead dumping water. The wind was blasting, sending embers everywhere and it was at the last second when I was sure we were going to lose the house that the wind changed directions. That was amazing,” he said, his voice trailing off.
Bill, like so many, said acts of heroism and bravery were everywhere. Fire chief Darin Quigley quickly assessed the fire and determined the response needed to be swift and fully supported. On that day, crews were all over the county fighting existing fires and he called in the Incident Team on the Happy Camp fire and ordered the release of all air resources to fight the fire as well as 110 engines, 20 bulldozers, and 40 hand crews. Because the now dubbed Boles Fire was a threat to many lives, it was given priority and fire resources from all over the county were diverted there. Chief Quigley’s leadership saved the lives and property of many but, sadly, his own home was lost in the inferno.
Weed High is at the top of Hillside Drive and around the corner on White Avenue is Weed Elementary School. Remi-Vista mental health counselor Christine Barto was at the Elementary school on the day of the fire. She talked about the terrifying process of evacuating the school children when it became clear that the fire alarm was not a drill. “Children were herded to the ball field (Lobis Field) next to the high school. The buses couldn’t pick up in their usual place because of the fire and traffic. Frantic parents rushed in to pick up their children while the teachers and staff tried to guide children to the buses. The buses got to the field but had to park by the fence where the shop teacher (Damon Zeller) cut a hole in the fence so the kids could get through to board the bus.”
From there, the buses and cars were directed onto a dirt back road that skirts the town and the Roseburg Forest Products Mill. “The heat from the fire was intense, smoke was thick and the embers were flying everywhere. We drove down this dirt road which eventually took us to a main road and we ended up in Lake Shastina.”
Cell phone coverage during the evacuation was minimal adding to the stress and terror of family members trying in vain to contact each other. Barto said that the school janitor combed the school and every classroom, making sure all children were accounted for. It was managed chaos, but ultimately successful. Barto leans back in her chair and marvels like every person I talked to, “It’s a miracle no one died.”
Weed High principal Mike Matheson has subsequently met with emergency personnel to discuss future disaster preparedness. “We live in the forest and we need to have a variety of ways to get out in the case of a fire, including the possibility of a “shelter in place” a protected room to gather in the event of another sudden emergency.” He added, “Based on circumstances and all of the unknowns, I believe the evacuation went as well as possible.”
Every student will have their own story about what happened to them on the day of the fire. Chase Horner, a 16-year old Weed High Sophomore, was in Physical Training class when the substitute teacher corralled the students on the school yard after the fire alarm sounded. Chase saw the flames cresting the hill, heading straight toward his home where he knew his mother, a night nurse at Mercy Hospital, was sleeping. “I tried to call her on the phone but she didn’t answer and I knew no one else was at home because my dad left for work that morning and my little sister was in school. The smoke was so thick, I pulled my shirt over my face and took off running for home. I ran into the house and woke up my mom. We grabbed the three dogs and took off in our Honda.” He didn’t know it at the time, but the side of his home, a historic wood building that was once the Lumber Mill’s dance hall, was already on fire.
His home is a total loss but for one item. “The firefighters found a silver cross that was given to me by my aunt who died a while ago.” Then he added, his eyes widening, “You can replace stuff, but every day is a gift.”
Two churches, both on North Davis Street burned to the ground and both congregations plan to rebuild. Each included the church itself and reception halls and classrooms. Elder Gerry Watson of Grace Evangelical Presbyterian Church, is one of six elders who will lead their community of 40 members through the process of rebuilding. The church has served the community since 1905 with many upgrades and remodels over the years.
Father Joshy Mathew, parochial administrator of 350 families at Holy Family Catholic Church, had minutes to gather a few things in the rectory before evacuating. Within a day, he met with church leaders to check on all parishioners. For those unaccounted for, he sent a letter stating concern and offering aid. Committees of church members are being organized to aid in both short and long term recovery. Sunday masses are being held at the College of the Siskiyous Fort Theater as well as daily mass in a downtown furniture store. “Nobody lost life and buildings can be rebuilt,” said Fr. Mathew, adding sincerely, “God will provide.”
“We have a chance to rebuild what we want,” says Mike Rodriguez District Administrator for The Mt. Shasta Recreation and Parks District which includes Weed’s parks. In April of this year, escrow closed on a new Community Center on South Davis, right in the heart of the schools and neighborhood. This $1.2 million dollar facility included a community pool, fitness center, state of the art “awesome” kitchen, as well as meeting rooms one of which was being used on the day of the fire by Athletes Committed. This newly formed group sponsored by The Siskiyou County Alcohol and Other Drugs Prevention organization promotes drug and alcohol education and trains students to be leaders in this area at their individual schools. The students and their mentors were evacuated from the building just as the fire crested the hill. They had minutes to flee before the new Rec. Center caught fire and burned to the ground. The building was well insured and they will rebuild but where and what is still in the planning stages. “We at least have the opportunity of moving the noisy ice machine away from the conference rooms,” laughed Rodriguez looking on the bright side.
You could fill a book with the stories, and probably in time someone will. For now, the citizens of Weed are busy planning and acting for the future. Within 24 hours after the fire, volunteer and government relief organizations were firmly in place to assist the people affected by the fire. Unless you are personally affected by a disaster, you probably don’t know that government and volunteer organizations are poised and ready to help in every way imaginable. And help comes very quickly.
First, there is putting out the fire and accounting for every life affected. The search for possible fire victims—and the site has been combed by search and rescue crews with cadaver dogs—has thus far turned up empty. Many pets were lost, but many also made it out either on their own or were rescued by owners and others. The fire came up fast, spread quickly. The neighborhood was fully populated with children, families and the elderly. The exit routes were choked with flame, smoke, and traffic. No one I spoke with can understand, given the dire conditions on the ground, that there weren’t any human casualties. Fire crews on the ground assisted by helicopter and planes managed to put the fire out in hours, though no one was allowed back into the burn area until all hot spots and other dangerous material were dealt with.
While the fire was still raging, concerned citizens from all over the county and beyond began to connect and offer support to victims. This support was channeled into a solid network of organizations poised and ready to come in and offer immediate and long term assistance. Organizations such as the U.S. Small Business Administration are offering low interest loans for the uninsured and under-insured. “We want to give people options so they can make their own decisions about rebuilding but not from a lack of capital,” said Susheel Kumar, SBA representative. Siskiyou Public Health and Siskiyou Recycles are coordinating with the city in their clean-up efforts. The air is monitored regularly for hazardous materials and clean-up is being coordinated on the weekends to lessen the impact on area schools. Food distribution is being handled by Siskiyou Food Assistance, which was burned out but has temporarily relocated to a Crystal Geyser warehouse. Temporary housing is being handled by a volunteer, Sandra Haugen with Elite Real Estate Group in Weed. Weed Family Resource Center along with many other community groups are reaching out to fire victims to provide non-food support, including clothing, diapers and furniture. Also key to the recovery effort will be trauma counseling for children, families and individuals who will need support in the coming months and years as they deal with the emotional scars of the fire.
Beginning The Recovery
Within a day of the fire, plans were underway with the Shasta Regional Community Foundation (SRCF) to begin work on a Recovery Plan. That plan, under the leadership of Development and Communications Associate, Jill Harris, has five components with the stated goal of steering Weed through long term recovery. Committees have been formed in five areas of leadership: finance, construction, case management, housing and unmet needs. Community groups, government agencies and individuals will all serve on these committees with the goal of not only speeding recovery but doing it in a way that considers every aspect of the rebuilding process.
SRCF operates as a “pass through” for donations to the Boles Fire. “All donations designated for the Boles Fire will go for the Boles Fire,” said Jill Harris addressing some concerns that donations to disaster organizations are not used for the intended disaster but are funneled to a larger organization and lost in bureaucracy. “All dispersement (of funds) will be very transparent, with regular updates and press releases. We have a history of doing this well, and already a vehicle in place which can quickly establish a framework for recovery which includes working closely with other established disaster organizations, both government and non-profit toward continued recovery.” Donations can be made to them at Shasta Regional Community Foundation - Memo - Community Disaster Relief Fund. 1335 Arboretum Drive, Ste. B, Redding, CA 96003.
According to their website, “National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster is a nonprofit, nonpartisan, membership-based organization that builds resiliency in communities nationwide. It serves as the forum where organizations share knowledge and resources throughout the disaster cycle — preparation, response, recovery and mitigation — to help disaster survivors and their communities.” Known as VOAD, this organization immediately marshaled their Northern California chapter to help in both the short and long term aspects of assistance. VOAD enables members to share information and coordinate the deployment of resources to disaster areas. By sharing of information and coordination of services, groups work together more efficiently, removing duplication of services and channeling aid directly to the people who need it most. Tom Conrad, president of Northern California VOAD, has been a presence at community meetings coordinating recovery efforts with his organization and others.
Roseburg Forest Products with 135 employees at its Weed mill, sustained significant damage but vows to be up and running again by Thanksgiving. Employees fought the fire alongside firefighters. Weed Plant Manager Jeff Scholberg recalled the fire on Monday night and the spirit of the employees, “We had such an incredible response from our people at the plant. After being evacuated, they voluntarily chose to fight the fire at the mill, some knowing that their own homes were going up in flames.”
In the interim, many employees will be offered positions in their Oregon mills and others will be employed in the clean-up and renovation. In addition to being a significant economic presence in Weed and Siskiyou County, Roseburg Forest Products is noted for its philanthropy, underwriting many community projects.
As Weed continues to march forward in recovery, Mayor Bob Hall speaks for the town of Weed when he says that the support from outside of Weed has been overwhelming. “The whole community is humbled by the outpouring of material, financial and emotional support. Our Weed Recovers motto is, “If we all do a little, we can accomplish great things.” For more information or to give money or material donations, contact weed.recovers.org.
Madeleine DeAndreis-Ayres lived in Weed from 1976 to 1978 where she attended College of the Siskiyous, and worked at Silva’s Restaurant. Ed and Nola Silva, owners of Silva’s Restaurant and providers of good jobs to college kids, tragically lost their home in the Boles Fire. She wishes them and all the good citizens of Weed a speedy recovery.