Volume XV | Issue 1 | Spring 2015
A new house receives a delivery of trusses in Weed, Calif., after the Boles Fire nearly destroyed the town in September 2014. Photo: Fire photo: Virginia Becker. House photo: Cindy Cheffey.

Weed fire: Recovery begins after a disaster

Houses start to rise after a fire nearly destroyed the town

On the morning of Sept. 15, 2014, people in the northern California community of Weed were enjoying a sunny fall day. Children were settling into their week at school. The Weed Community Center’s gym was echoing with the sound of teen-agers attending a countywide Athlete Committed event.

And then everything changed. 

And then everything changed. At about 1:30 p.m., one of the student athletes pointed out the window to the astonishing sight of a fire burning its way toward the building. Pushed by high winds, the Boles Fire quickly spread to more than 200 acres. By 6 p.m., stunned townspeople were taking stock of everything they had lost: 157 homes and eight commercial properties completely destroyed, and many more structures damaged. The Community Center, one of the first structures to be evacuated, was completely destroyed. So were two of Weed’s churches. Two schools were damaged, along with the Roseburg Forest Products veneer plant.

The Boles Fire was unexpected. It was incredibly fast. And it was devastating. Unfortunately, it was not unique. Catastrophic events, whether caused by nature or by man, seem to happen with distressing regularity. 

 “The lessons we learn from the Weed fire and other disasters help us all build the kind of communities that can rebound and recover,” says Anne Kubisch, president of The Ford Family Foundation. 

Events such as Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy have grabbed the nation’s attention, but the Pacific Northwest has a tragic list of its own, including last year’s deadly landslide in Oso, Wash., Vernonia’s floods in 1996 and 2007, and the 2011 tsunami that hit Oregon’s south coast. The expectation that a major earthquake is due off the Pacific Coast (see our Spring 2014 issue) adds even more urgency to the community resiliency discussion.

“We need to get people to think about disasters as part of our lives—it’s not if it happens, but when,” says Bob Ottenhoff, chief executive officer of the Center for Disaster Philanthropy. “By thinking about the full life cycle of disaster, we can do much more to plan response and mitigation, and to build resilient communities that can absorb a blow and then bounce back quicker.”

What works? What doesn’t?

In this issue of Community Vitality, we look in more detail at what happened in Weed, and the efforts that community is making to recover. In an event like this, what works? What doesn’t? And how can we best help our neighbors, if they are the ones in need? 

In Weed, the recovery process promises to be long, but a strong tradition of community involvement has helped get it started. “There has been enormous help from many,” says Jennifer Rubio, a Ford Sons and Daughters scholarship recipient whose family lost three homes, along with their pets. “I was born and raised here and I know how strong everyone is. This town will come back even if the process takes time.”  

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