In the span of a few hours on Sept. 8, the Almeda Fire traveled up the freeway and through Phoenix and neighboring Talent, laying waste to much of the towns. Local officials estimated that the fire destroyed nearly 1,800 homes and businesses.
The ruin was so widespread that a week later, authorities had still blocked entry to the town, worried about the danger of downed power lines and sinkholes. That left Jack Nicas, a Times reporter, standing on the outskirts of town, struggling to find a way in.
Then a yellow school bus pulled up, piloted by a local pastor. “I can take you there,” said the pastor, Lee Gregory. “No one else can.”
What followed was an emotional tour through the destruction. A dozen of the mobile-home parks that housed retirees and immigrant farm workers were destroyed, including where Ramona Curiel de Pacheco lived with her family. Mexican immigrants, they had built a happy life in Phoenix, but now their home was gone and they didn’t have insurance. “Everything of ours burned,” she said. “We couldn’t even get our children’s papers.”
Also burned was Barkley’s Tavern, long Phoenix’s lone bar, built in 1898. Mr. Gregory got out of the bus to peer at the charred remains. “Like most taverns, a place where people found a lot of fellowship and friendship,” he said.
Just past Phoenix, in Talent, Daniel Verner was searching the rubble of his former home for the box that held the ashes of his late wife. She had died of cancer 11 months earlier. Next door, Cherie Grubbs was looking for mementos of her son, who was murdered in 2011.
The neighbors were in a relationship, forged by heartache. “We kind of shared this incredible, unbearable grief,” Ms. Grubbs said. “We kind of thought we paid our grief dues.”