Every morning, Rick Ogier leaves his new house and takes his dogs on a walk through the Oak Knoll neighbor-hood. As he shuts his front door and heads to the street, he passes two stark reminders of what happened at this time last year.
Flanking Ogier's new Craftsman home are two empty lots where houses once stood.
Those houses burned to the ground. So did Ogier's old home and eight others in the 800 block of Oak Knoll Drive.
Check out interactive photo collages of the rebuilding of the Oak Knoll neighborhood, along with stories, galleries and other coverage from last year's fire until today, all at www.mailtribune.com/oakknollfire.
On Aug. 24, 2010, as the sun turned the grass to straw and a wind whipped against a parched field on Washington Street, a stray spark changed the lives of 11 families forever.
It was Ashland's worst residential fire in at least a century. In a matter of minutes, the 11 houses turned to ash. All of the residents escaped safely, but when they stopped and caught their breath, they found they hardly recognized the life that had just been saved.
Almost exactly a year after the tragedy, the victims are reflecting on what it has been like to lose everything and to try to build it back, piece by piece, dollar by dollar, memory by memory.
"Life's still not the same," Ogier said. "We have a beautiful new home, but grandma's quilt's not on the back of the couch anymore."
Nine of the families have rebuilt their homes on the same scarred lots. Two, Ogier's next-door neighbors, remain displaced but are planning to begin rebuilding this fall.
The fire spread from house to house within about 15 minutes, leaving residents no time to evacuate belongings. By about 6 p.m. that day, all that was left were smoldering skeletons of houses: a doorknob here, a cast-iron pan there, a whole lot of ash.
"We lost everything," said Brian Patterson, who lived with his 11-year-old son next door to Ogier. Patterson rented the house from his parents, and while they have been preparing to rebuild over the past year, he has been staying in an RV on their other property across town. His son stays in Patterson's parents' house.
"The fire kind of messed up my life," Patterson said. "I've been trying to make it however I can."
Patterson didn't have renter's insurance, so aside from a few thousand dollars in community donations, he didn't receive any money to replace his and his son's belongings. The Firehouse 5 Foundation and a donation account at U.S. Bank raised $35,600 for the victims over the past year.
In addition to dealing with the emotional trauma of the fire, a number of victims have struggled with their insurance companies during the rebuilding process.
"All insurance companies play games, and it's a very unfruitful part of the process," said Liza Christian, who owns the lot on the other side of Ogier's property. "I'm sure we've all had aggravation stories."
For much of this year, Christian has tried to sell her vacant lot or trade it for a similar lot in Medford. Finding no suitable offers, she has now decided to rebuild on Oak Knoll Drive and live there once again.
"I'm still kind of displaced," said Christian, who is renting a house in Talent. "I'm not in a permanent home, but I know that for many of us, even those who have accomplished rebuilding, we're still hung up in the hell of inventorying contents of our old houses to get reimbursed."
While some victims' insurance has completely covered the cost of rebuilding, others have only seen partial reimbursement.
Ashland Police Officer Jason Daoust, who evacuated his neighbors and directed traffic on Oak Knoll Drive as his own home burned, said his insurance company paid to rebuild his house but left no money for landscaping. His new Craftsman house is surrounded by dirt while he saves up enough money to put in trees, flowers and fences. He estimates the landscaping will cost $15,000.
"I have to pay for it out of pocket," he said. "So I'm just going to do it piece by piece. I've been saving up for it."
A number of the Oak Knoll victims have built an 8-foot concrete wall behind their homes to try to prevent another catastrophic blaze from spreading so quickly. They received special clearance from the city to build the wall.
While Daoust wouldn't mind having a thick wall behind his home, he can't afford the extra expense, which could be as much as $25,000 because his fence line is on the edge of a hillside, he said. In the gully behind the fence line, trees blackened by the fire still stand.
"Sometimes I think about how it could happen again," he said. "But it could happen anywhere in the city, and you can't live in fear."
Ogier said his 11-year-old-daughter insisted that he build the wall behind their house, or else she wasn't moving back. She still gets worried when she smells smoke from a neighbor's wood stove, he said.
"She'd say, 'Daddy, I smell smoke. What's that, Daddy?' " Ogier recalled. "For the first six months, it did make us nervous."
The fact that the Ashland homeless man suspected of starting the fire has been in and out of jail a number of times in the past year has also unnerved residents. A Jackson County Circuit Court judge said Thiry likely did start the fire that burned 11 homes, but prosecutors didn't prove he was aware of the dangers of his actions, a condition that needed to be met for a conviction of reckless endangerment.
He has since been convicted of several other crimes, including throwing an object off an overpass, harassment and menacing, but he has served only a few weeks or months in jail for each conviction. On Sunday, due to jail overcrowding, he was again released and is now roaming Ashland's streets.
"The system failed him," Ogier said. "And I'm concerned for everybody, because if he did it once, he can do it again. Here we go, here's fire season and he's back on the streets."
Still, dealing with a major tragedy has made the fire victims more compassionate toward those who also have struggles, Christian said.
"I think if all of us who go through difficult situations like this look at what it has brought into our lives ... we can be better people through this," she said.
Ogier, Skinner Auto Plex's business manager, said he occasionally gets calls from former customers whose homes have burned, and he tries to walk them through the insurance and reimbursement process.
Daoust said he is able to relate more easily to those in tragic situations whom he meets on patrol.
"When you lose everything, you can't help but offer understanding and compassion to people in similar circumstances," he said.
The fire victims have done what they can to alleviate fears and bring back their old lives.
Gary Pederson, who was the first to rebuild, has bought authentic World War II medals on eBay to replace his father's collection that burned in the fire. Meanwhile, Robert Pederson, who is 90, used some of the insurance money to buy a gleaming new pool table to put in the game room.
Daoust is preparing to hang a copy of his family tree on his new walls.
Ogier had his daughter's teddy bear, which somehow survived the fire, cleaned and placed in a glass case in her bedroom.
Patterson used some of the donation money to buy his son a new Xbox video game system.
These are little things, but they're a start toward making life normal again, Ogier said.
"Is it home yet?" he said. "No, it's not home yet. But in time, it will become home."
Reach reporter Hannah Guzik at 541-776-4459 or email email@example.com.