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As Maui struggles to rebuild, one Oregon man's story potentially shows the way

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

What does it mean for a person or a community like Maui to come back from a fire? Tragically, it's a question faced by more people in more places in recent years. And we look at one this morning in southern Oregon. The Almeda fire, driven by heat, drought and fierce winds, tore through towns there just after Labor Day weekend 2020. Over 2,600 homes burned, including one belonging to Tony and Terri Chavez in Phoenix, Ore. Tony Chavez joins us now. Thanks so much for being with us.

TONY CHAVEZ: Oh, you're welcome. You're welcome. Thanks for having me.

SIMON: I understand and apologize for the fact that we're asking you to go back in what must be some painful memories. What was it like in that moment you realized that your home was lost?

CHAVEZ: We left when we saw the fires in the backyard and got out of town and regrouped with some other friends in another part of town. And for a while we didn't know. We just - we literally just sat on the curb for about an hour. And I actually got a text from one of my other friends in town with a picture of our house on fire. And it's a pretty numb moment when you see that, you know? Everything races through your head - what's gone, what could you have done? It's - yeah, there's no real way to prepare for it.

SIMON: May I ask what raced through your mind when you saw and heard the news about Maui?

CHAVEZ: Oh, it was a definite trigger. You instantly go back to our day of the fire. And you don't wish that on anybody.

SIMON: Yeah.

CHAVEZ: And, you know, they're in for a long road ahead of them, and we know that.

SIMON: But what have you learned about the road back? How easy or hard was it to get the help that you needed?

CHAVEZ: That was one of the harder parts, if that makes any sense. What really compounded it was there was - a third of our town was lost, but two-thirds was still standing. And, you know, authorities - I don't know if they were trying to get control of the situation - locked everybody out of town. So a couple of us, you know, got together, and we were taking inventory of what people needed who wouldn't leave town, and we were handing supplies over barricades, you know? It added to the trauma.

SIMON: How hard was it for you to rebuild?

CHAVEZ: We couldn't have done anything without our group of friends and family. You know, we had an architect and a builder step in to help us. We had it pretty easy that way. As far as resources, you know, we built most of our house ourselves 'cause we didn't have enough money. We didn't have enough insurance coverage 'cause we didn't keep up to date on our insurance policy. We didn't meet with our agent once a year like you're supposed to. So that was our shortfall. But one of the biggest tragedies about the rebuild was materials shot up 300%.

SIMON: Is that 'cause of demand, do you think? Or...

CHAVEZ: You know, I think it was what the market will bear. People needed materials.

SIMON: What do - what you've gone through in your family and in your community made you realize something about your community?

CHAVEZ: Almost immediately, the day after the fire, our community instantaneously came together. And it didn't matter what flag you had in your front yard or what bumper sticker you had on the back of your car or truck. It was just people helping people. Our citizens and our community were the biggest resource we had. And from what I understand, you know, Hawaii is even a tighter-knit community. And I think their community is going to be their biggest resource. The agencies need to work with those communities.

SIMON: On the chance that people in Maui might be listening to our conversation today, anything you'd like to tell them?

CHAVEZ: We know what you're going through. It does get better. Just - neighbor, look to neighbor. That's - it's the best thing I can say.

SIMON: Tony Chavez lives in Phoenix, Ore., with his wife, Terri. Thank you so much for speaking to us.

CHAVEZ: Thank you for reaching out.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARK ORTON'S "THE OLD HOUSE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.