Everything west of this small town avenue is intact. Everything else is gone.

Wildfires burned the tiny town of Talent, Oregon, straight down the middle. Now residents on both sides grapple with what to do next.

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In the late morning of September 8, a fire swept through southern Oregon leaving the small town of Talent burned almost exactly in half. In the weeks after the fire, residents and local officials grappled with how to repair their community.

The day after the devastation, as Ron Medinger surveyed the rubble of his home, he took a picture of the tomato bed. On a square of blackened soil, around two empty plant cages, charred tomatoes lay scattered like lumps of coal. That night he posted the photo to the town historical society’s Facebook page. “I think I may have done something wrong with our Talent Tomatoes,” Medinger wrote. “Not enough water maybe?”

In Talent, Oregon, one of the Western towns most ravaged by this fall’s wildfires, Medinger’s question was a grim private joke. Over the years the locally homegrown tomato has become an unofficial mascot for Talent, a community of retirees, theater people, and agricultural workers. There’s an annual tomato photo contest; a fall Harvest Festival with a king and queen in red capes and tomato-covered crowns; and a custom-designed T-shirt, the most recent reading, “Home is where the tomato is.”

But on the morning of Tuesday, September 8, a rush of flames shot along a nearby creek and into this town of 6,400. The fire spread through retirement communities and trailer parks, consumed strip malls and landscaping businesses, hopped over a highway, and stopped at Talent Avenue. Half of Talent was left standing; the other half unrecognizable. For hundreds of families, the fire stole their homes, their community, and a late summer bounty of beloved Talent Tomatoes.

In the aftermath of the fire, the town has reeled. It was effectively split in half—those who have lost their homes and businesses, and those who have not. “This is the dividing line,” says Sandy Spelliscy, the city manager, turning her city car onto Talent Avenue a week after the fire. The main thoroughfare, once the center of Talent’s cultural life, is now ripped in half.

On one side of Talent Avenue, wooden houses with picket fences and entrances leading into communities of colorfully painted mobile homes sit untouched. The Talent Club, with its wooden front porch, and a small café with an outdoor seating area are closed but unscathed, and the production facility for staging an annual Shakespeare Festival is filled with props and costumes.

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Shells of cars and piles of rubble are all that's left of former retirement communities and mobile home parks in Talent. The fire stopped after consuming one side of Talent Avenue, the cultural and historic vein of town. With roots in the Oregon Trail, Talent has long drawn a diverse array of retirees, agricultural laborers, and artists.

On the other side, metal stairwells climb out of the rubble that was a brand new apartment complex. The glass of a bus stop has melted into a heap on the metal bench. Pink fire retardant covers large swaths of what were residential neighborhoods. A huge plywood heart sits propped against a fence. Another sign, leaning on a burned tree, reads, “Held up by love.”

Everything east of Talent Avenue is gone. Everything west of the avenue is intact. No one knows exactly why. A change in the direction of viciously fast winds, perhaps? Or the placement of the line where fireman fought back flames?

Spelliscy estimates Talent has lost 40 percent of its land and 1,000 structures. At least 1,500 people, a quarter of the town, have been displaced. Motels, parking lots, and parks in a 50-mile radius are filled with evacuees. Driving along Talent Avenue, she glances out the passenger side at the burned landscape and skeletal trees. “I don’t know if people want to look out their windows at this,” she says.

NOTE: Data as of September 24, 2020. SOURCE: NATIONAL INTERAGENCY FIRE CENTER

The resurgence of Talent

In a country of Phoenixes and Salems and Portlands, there is, residents like to say, only one Talent. In the 19th century the area was originally called the Eden District; residents say it lives up to the original name.

With the Cascade Range rising around it, Talent has become a cultural and economic hub in the agricultural Rogue Valley, where Oregon’s marijuana farms and vineyards stretch for miles. An 85-year-old Shakespeare Festival draws visitors from around the world. Talent has a large Latino population, a thriving theater scene, plenty of affordable housing, and the only mosque for 200 miles.

Now, in an attempt to bring color back to the landscape, someone has lined the entry into Talent with buckets of freshly cut sunflowers. They lead toward a National Guard roadblock, and Spelliscy pulls her white SUV around it into a retirement community called Oak Valley. On the day of the fire, she says, the nearby creek “acted like a big funnel” that propelled flames toward Talent. Sifting boxes are propped outside the clubhouse against a message board that still displays minutes from an August homeowners meeting. Bowls of pet food sit nearby. A wooden fence, still covered in greenery, and a singed pink Buick pop against the grey.

Spelliscy turns out of Oak Valley and back toward Talent Avenue. The burned half of town is considered a crime scene, as the cause of the fire is still under investigation, and residents aren’t supposed to return. But the few with surviving homes have come to empty the rotting food from their fridges, she says. Others are coming to look for pets and property. Instead, she says, they’re getting “the trauma of seeing what their town looks like.”

Talent hasn’t always prospered. A 90,000-square-foot Walmart built in 1993 helped shutter the mom and pop businesses before closing 20 years later. But in recent years, there had been a small resurgence: a record store, a book shop, new wine tasting rooms. “There was a sense that Talent was on its way up,” Spelliscy says, pulling into the parking lot of city hall, where she’ll return to work.

Some of those businesses, which straddled both sides of Talent Avenue, are now gone. After the fire, life in town revolves around a storefront called Maker City, on the intact side of the avenue. Tables overflowing with giveaways—food, water, medical supplies—fill the parking lot, and many nights a free meal is served by a local restaurant. A whiteboard displays notices for lost pets and temporary accommodations.

Allison French, a fast-moving woman with short grey hair, oversees the operation. Maker City, which she co-founded four years ago as an arts and after-school hub, began 3D printing face shields, air filter housings, and other medical equipment early in the pandemic. Two days after the fire, the team turned the space into a hub for NGOs and volunteers. Now they’re using their carpentry tools to build replacement beds and desks for those lost in the fire.

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A street sign in the Oak Valley retirement community leads the way to destruction on both ends. In the aftermath of the fires, thousands of people from the affected areas have been living in hotels, parking lots, and other temporary accommodations. Talent's mayor fears that without focused rebuilding efforts the town won't be able to maintain its diversity.

There’s no shortage of help, French says, and she’s bombarded with offers to volunteer, donate clothes, and offer construction services. “Everyone in Talent has that mixed feeling that if your house survived,” French pauses, tears in her eyes. “It’s just by luck of the wind.”

Inside, wearing a Mexico soccer jersey, Maker City board member Laura Quintero says Talent’s burn zone includes mobile home parks that were home to migrant workers and Latino families. Quintero, who plays liaison to the area’s Latino populations, remembers thinking the tiny town felt like a movie set when she first came from Guadalajara, Mexico, with her husband. Now she’s delivering meals, translating paperwork, and fielding a flood of requests for aid.

It’s grape harvest season, Quintero says, and many of the burned-out families who work in the fields “are living one day at a time.” She starts listing emails from the day before: A family wrote about losing their landscaping business; she promised to help them find new equipment. Another displaced family had found a place to sleep, but there was no shower. Quintero brought them to her own house.

“Fortunately our home survived,” Quintero says. “My family is safe. I feel like I need to help people who don’t have that. That’s why I’m here.”

The town’s undocumented fire victims need special attention too. At one local Spanish-language event, as it became clear that a $7,000 fire relief grant from the state was available only for U.S. citizens, a woman cried out “No me van a ayudar!”—They won’t help me!—before collapsing into Jocksana Corona’s arms. Corona held the crying woman, assuring her there would be other resources. But looking around, she realized that many people were thinking the same thing. Corona had come to the meeting seeking help for her own family and left feeling a sense of despair.

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“I don’t see homes. I see families,” says Jocksana Corona on a visit back to the remains of her house in the Talent Mobile Homes Estates. Corona's own family, including her mother-in-law, sister-in-law, and a medley of pets, have been staying at the Girls Scouts headquarters in a nearby town.

“Most U.S. citizens don’t realize how many forms ask if you’re a U.S. citizen,” says Corona, who was brought from Mexico at age four and now lives and works legally through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy. For migrant workers with mixed-status families, applying for aid after a natural disaster can be impossible—or an enormous risk to their ability to stay together. “I know if these people have to stay in their cars for fear of deportation, they’ll do it,” she says. “They’ll stay until they run out of money.”

The intersection of Talent Ave and Arnold Street was once home to Talent Mobile Estates, where Corona and her family lived. A September 8 video on her phone shows wind gusts blowing her daughter’s green-highlighted hair at a 90 degree angle from her head at 11:05 a.m. A photo taken half an hour later shows the horizon filled with smoke. Corona says she rushed her kids out of the house, and that they ran up and down the streets, calling for the cats, knocking on neighbors’ doors, screaming at everyone to evacuate. At 12:06, holding four cats, three dogs, and everyone’s birth certificates, they jumped in the car and left.

For now, invited by Corona’s daughter’s troop leader, they’re sleeping on cots in a Girls Scouts headquarters in Medford, 10 miles north of Talent. In one corner, her daughter has strung blankets around her cot to build a fort for the cats. Their home—number 88, grey with red trim, a backyard grill, and a seating area her son and husband had just built—is gone. “We’re trying to stay together,” Corona says, “because that’s all we have.” And she starts to cry. It’s her 36th birthday.

An uncertain future

Many people don’t realize that the mayor is a volunteer position in Talent, says Darby Ayers-Flood, between calls at her day job running the Best Western in nearby Medford. Sixty rooms in the hotel are still filled with fire evacuees, including some of her constituents, and she often walks the parking lot talking to those who’ve lost their homes. To sketch out her plan for the other half of Talent, Ayers-Flood takes a break at an outside table. Ash flakes still float in the air, leaving a light white coating on every surface. She grabs a rag to wipe the table down.

Ayers-Flood looks at the aftermath of the fire that burned Paradise, California, two years ago, and worries about her town. Few Paradise residents have returned, she says—mostly those who could afford to rebuild on their own. She fears developers and gentrification will price out the low- and middle-income residents hit hardest by the fires in Talent. “The work has to be laser focused if we’re going to preserve the type of housing that’s been lost,” she says. “Otherwise we’ll become a completely different community.”

Her top priority is transitional shelter, she says. Four acres of city land slated for an urban renewal project will soon be set up with trailers and RVs, and then she’ll move on to more sturdy temporary housing until permanent structures can be built.

Ayers-Flood is putting her hope in a 2019 state law that allows non-profit organizations to buy existing mobile home parks and turn them into low-income housing. Normally it’s hard to find whole parks for sale, but with many now razed by fire, there may be an opportunity. “We have a really groovy thing happening in Talent,” she says. “It’d be heartbreaking to lose that because we didn’t do enough in the beginning.”

She sighs. Right now, she says, that population “is still scattered to the wind.” Two dozen city employees are overwhelmed by the dual tasks of getting the city running and strategizing how to bring back its inhabitants. The row of industrial businesses running along Highway 99 also burned; their tax contributions vanished with them. “We’ll be competing for resources with the whole state,” she says. “The whole state burned up. We’ll have to be self-sufficient.”

There’s a particularly fervent type of Talent patriotism that residents hope can keep the town alive. Physically the town may be half gone, but its history remains intact in the mind of Ron Medinger, board president of the Talent Historical Society. Even now, Medinger says, he can see the town’s main street as it looked a century ago, when it served as the Applegate Trail, hosting new settlers’ covered wagons. Driving down Talent Avenue, Medinger points to the original site of Fort Wagner, used to wage war on Oregon’s native populations. Here’s the home of A.P. Talent, the 1880s-era postmaster and town namesake, he says. And there’s an 1899 school house, spared by the fire due to its position one block west of Talent Avenue.

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Joan Soloman, 90, surveys the destruction of her home in the Oak Valley retirement community in Talent. It was her first home since her husband died six years ago. “I want to water my flowers," she says. Then she adds, “I know I am strong. It’s the end of a chapter, and on to a new one."

Around the corner and inside the Historical Society, Medinger picks up a walking tour booklet and flips through pictures of the historical homes. “That still stands… That was torn down by developers… We lost 14, 15, and 16 in the fire.” Number 14 was a modest private home with white columns. Number 15 most recently housed the Hermeticus Book Shop, the type of place where the owner would hand a new kid in town a book he’d been admiring and say, “Welcome to Talent.” Number 16 was an antique store specializing in Asian antiquities.

Medinger is a large man with a booming voice and a day job at Harry & David, the gift basket company. But in Talent, he’s now known as the tomato purveyor, even though the story doesn’t start with him. The way Medinger tells it, in the 1960s a farmer in Talent grew a particularly large and delicious tomato. He developed a new strain, named it for his town, and it soon became a hit. But in time it was lost—that is, until 2010, when a local man discovered an envelope of 40 seeds shoved in an old desk drawer. Long past their viability, the seeds blossomed, and the Talent Tomato was resurrected.

When Medinger joined the Historical Society board six years ago, he took a look at the checkbook and noted the three months of overdue rent. He had an idea: an annual Talent Tomato sale. The seeds would be grown into starter plants by a nearby nursery and sold in two sizes in the spring. It was wildly successful.

The idea turned into the Historical Society’s biggest annual fundraiser, Medinger says: “The tomato sale has given us an identity.” It powered through the pandemic this year; in May, volunteers in a red car marked “Talent Tomato Delivery Squad” delivered hundreds of plants in a 30-mile radius around Talent. The first fruit appeared in early July, on plants belonging to his neighbor, a retired grocery worker named Dave Hodson. Every year Hodson insists on buying the first tomato plants of the sale, which he tends to with a envious skill. A few years back, he picked 127 tomatoes off two plants by the end of August.

Hodson lived down the street from Medinger and his wife, Stella, in Mountain View Estates, a community of manufactured homes. When Medinger returned to the neighborhood the day after the fire, his home, number 5, was a heap of rubble. He drove down the block. There was Hodson’s house, number 45, perfectly intact. It seemed impossible. “Dave!” he yelled into the phone. “I’m looking at your house.” The garden didn’t fare as well. “His tomato plants were a little scorched,” Medinger says.

That was the night Medinger posted a photo of his empty plant cages on the Talent Historical Society Facebook page. “One of the saddest things for Stella and myself following the fire at Mountain View Estates, was that Stella had just made a huge batch of Talent Tomato soup and we'd only each had one bowl of it,” he wrote. “I don't think it's good anymore.”