Rising from the Ashes

Students sculpted manzanita branches to represent resilience.

On Sept. 6, students, school employees and community members gathered at Blue Heron Park in Phoenix, Ore., to witness the unveiling of a remarkable art installation: several metal sculptures, over 10 feet tall, modeling the branches of the manzanita tree. Each sculpture was crafted by students from Talent Middle School and Phoenix High School who worked with an artist over the summer to learn welding skills. Their sculptures are a gift to the community in honor of local residents’ resilience in the 12 months following the Almeda fire.

Few Oregonians have forgotten the devastating wildfires that swept through the state last September. That is especially true in the hardest-hit areas, where recovery is still ongoing. The Southern Oregon communities of Phoenix and Talent saw some of the most catastrophic damage; in just 24 hours, the Almeda fire destroyed thirty percent of homes in the area, displacing close to 700 students and 11 staff members in the Phoenix-Talent School District.

The student artists chose to sculpt manzanita branches because the tree, which is indigenous to Southern Oregon, requires fire to germinate. Traditionally, it has symbolized rebirth and resilience — making it well-suited to represent the community as it recovers and rebuilds after a tremendous loss.

The art installation isn’t the first time Phoenix-Talent schools have been at the center of recovery projects. The crisis only emphasized the central role classified school workers hold in their communities. Christie Sanders, president of OSEA Phoenix-Talent Chapter 96, recounts coordinating relief efforts since the very beginning — efforts which continue one year later.

“We were probably the first ones on the ground just hours after the fire,” Sanders remembers. “The sun rose the next morning and we were there, doing what needed to be done.”

Even as they worried about their own homes and neighborhoods, school employees worked around the clock to establish relief centers, coordinate donations and volunteers, distribute essential information and check on their students. They were effective because they were already known and trusted in the community, said Assistant Superintendent Tiffany Lambert. “The one common denominator in this natural disaster was the school district. We were the only thing that was in every community,” she said.

“It truly became a local grass roots effort to provide resources… Our PTS Rising logo, that became the staple people looked for when they needed information,” added Sanders, referring to the T-shirts emblazoned with a colorful ‘Phoenix-Talent Schools Rising’ logo which school staff began wearing to identify themselves as they worked in the community.

While the immediate crisis has passed, Phoenix-Talent has a long way to go to fully recover. Many students are still living in motels, campgrounds or other temporary housing with no idea when they will be able to move to a permanent home. As another school year begins, staff continue to support them however they can, whether busing students in from far-flung counties, providing laundry facilities
or offering trauma-informed supports.

“Our community and our district are probably stronger and closer than we’ve ever been,” Sanders said.

Other fire ravaged communities will recognize this story. After surviving the Riverside fire, which damaged many homes near Estacada, Ore., Estacada Chapter 100 President Amanda Hamlin has been inspired to see her coworkers and community working together. “I’m amazed at how resilient the community is after so much loss,” Hamlin said. “The way they came together during and after the fires makes me proud to work for the Estacada School District.”

McKenzie River Chapter 74 President Fred Heins agrees. McKenzie School District is located in Blue River, Ore., and serves the surrounding area, where numerous homes were damaged or destroyed during the Holiday Farm fire last year. Many families are facing their second winter in temporary housing. As residents slowly rebuild the community, school staff are “working toward a goal of normalcy for our students and ourselves,” said Heins.

“It is amazing to see a bond built between staff and students through these trying times.” Support from locals and those in neighboring communities, including other OSEA chapters, have helped Heins keep hope. “These things have been an amazing and unexpected light in such dark days,” he said.

Phoenix-Talent knows this feeling well. The student artists have crafted two additional manzanita sculptures, which will not be placed along the Greenway. Instead, they have been given to the McKenzie and Santiam Canyon School Districts — sharing a message of hope, resilience and solidarity from one community of survivors to another.