PHOENIX, Ore. — In summer 2019, Cassandra Cornwell and her sister, Molly Marchetti, bought a house on Brandon Way in Phoenix.
Just over a year later, on Sept. 8, 2020, a fire began nine miles away on Almeda Drive in north Ashland.
Aided by fierce winds and high temperatures, the flames raced northwest along the Bear Creek Greenway through Talent, Phoenix and parts of unincorporated Jackson County. Cornwell, Marchetti, their parents in Talent and other residents evacuated.
Their homes were among the 2,500 that burned. The fire also torched more than 170 businesses, displaced thousands of people and killed three.
“Not a single person, including us, thought that we were going to come back to a destroyed home,” Cornwell recalled. “We all thought there might be a little damage, but not everything gone.”
Cornwell — who cleaned houses for 16 years until that day in September — now works for Firebrand Resiliency Collective, a nonprofit based in Phoenix that helps communities advocate for their recovery.
The group started in the days after the fire. Tucker Teutsch — then a Talent resident who became the founder and executive director — and others used social media to help dispersed survivors find their way home via backstreets while the main roads remained impassable. When water service failed, the group used generators to power up wells, pump water into a tank and drive it to a mutual aid station for people to drink.
Formerly called Remake Talent, the group focuses on long-term recovery and local resilience against wildfires.
They recently launched Ready Now, a program that incorporates lessons learned about community preparedness, from hardening individual homes against fires to organizing neighborhoods around wildfire protection.
Cornwell coordinates Firebrand’s Zone Captain program and serves as a captain herself.
Firebrand divided the Almeda burn scar into 29 zones by development type.
In her zones, Cornwell builds relationships with survivors, finds out what they need, connects them to resources, such as financial or home-rebuilding assistance, programs to stock their kitchens or manage their mental health.
“Navigating all the resources available to survivors is really complicated,” Teutsch said. “Fire survivors are often dealing with their own individual trauma, and it can be really hard to get started.”
At one point, the Federal Emergency Management Agency offered trailers to dislocated residents.
“How do you go about purchasing a trailer from the federal government — it’s not easy, right? — and should you?” Teutsch said.
Firebrand created materials to help survivors navigate these opaque systems.
Marc Brooks, founder and executive director of the Otis-based Cascade Relief Team, came to Southern Oregon with his crew to assist survivors and aid in the clean-up. The team, composed largely of fire survivors from across Oregon, works with Firebrand and shares intel with them.
“Who has the most knowledge on what a survivor needs? A survivor,” Brooks said. “That’s where all the best ideas come from. That’s where the validity comes from.”
Cornwell makes and manages spreadsheets detailing the number of manufactured homes that are going up and where space is available for new ones. The data is used in Firebrand’s GIS map that tracks the pace of recovery and helps determine why some neighborhoods are bouncing back while others lag behind.
A member of the Jackson County Community Long-Term Recovery Group board, Cornwell attends meetings with agency partners and state officials when they decide how to help fire-affected populations. She brings her community’s concerns to their attention.
“I can be a voice for the survivors,” she said. “The people making the decisions don’t always really know what it’s like on the ground.”
She remembers the smoke in the sky and propane tanks exploding. The burned leaves drifting through the air as the fire raged toward their neighborhood. The lights going out in her house when the power was cut, as she and her sister, in a mind-obliterating panic, grabbed the belongings they could imagine a need for.
“It’s so hard to think in the moment,” Cornwell said.
When she later became a zone captain, Cornwell heard the stories of fellow survivors and noticed how similar they are to hers.
“Every single person said they thought they were going back home the next day,” she said.
A smartphone video shot by Marchetti captured their first walk back to their house through the ruins of the scorched neighborhood, quiet but for the wind and a faint sizzling. They walked past blackened trees, cars whose rims had melted down the driveway and into the street, naked chimneys looming over rubble and ash.
When Marchetti recognized the husk of her own car, she dropped the phone and sobbed.
About a month later, their parents — who had lost their house in Talent’s Mountain View Estates — purchased one of the 21 units remaining in the manufactured home park. The fire had eliminated 143, Cornwell said.
It’s the home where she and her sister lived as the community began to rebuild.
“I wasn’t very able to leave the home for very long for fear I was just going to break down in public — because, being on the spectrum, having all my routines and patterns and solitude completely destroyed really kind of shook my world,” she said.
Cornwell joined Remake Talent’s weekly zone captain meetups — her sister and father had raved about them — when they went virtual. She thought, “OK, I can go to that.”
“I can’t even tell you how great it was to connect with other people who’d gone through the same thing,” she said.
Cornwell soon learned the nonprofit had received grants to hire people displaced by the fires.
“And I was like, I want to do that. I want to lift out my hand to people and bring them out of their depression” — her voice broke — “like was done for me by the zone captains.”
In December, she was named an Everyday Hero for 2022 by United Way of Jackson County.
She and Marchetti have rebuilt their home on Brandon Way with fire-resistant materials, including concrete walk-arounds — rather than a deck or wooden walkways — and concrete-composite siding.
Last week, the 100th meetup of zone captains and survivors took place at Angelo’s Pizza in Phoenix.
It was paid for by Garrison’s furniture, a business that lost two outlets in the fire.
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