A new podcast explores the Almeda Drive Fire’s aftermath

Isabella Ruikis’ ‘movement journalism’ explores Oregon’s most destructive wildfire and finds hope for the future in community-based action.

Isabella Ruikis had just woken up and rolled over to check their phone when they noticed all the missed calls from friends in their hometown, Talent, in the Rogue Valley in southwestern Oregon.

It was Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2020, and Ruikis was a college student living in Corvallis. “I called my friend, and she was like, ‘You’ve got to call your mom right now — there’s a fire coming,’” they recalled.

Wildfires are a natural feature of Oregon’s ecology, but climate change has made the annual fire season longer and more volatile. According to one recent study, the likelihood of fire-friendly conditions in California and western Oregon has increased 40% due to human-caused climate change.

Growing up in Talent, a small town cradled by the foothills of the Cascade and Siskiyou mountains and threaded with wild rivers and gurgling creeks, Ruikis benefited from a tight-knit community that celebrated art and activism.


But as they got older, summers grew hotter, and every year, wildfire smoke settled on the valley floor. Sometimes fires started in the wilderness just outside the cities, but the flames rarely crept down the hills into populated areas and jeopardized homes.

The Almeda Drive Fire in the fall of 2020 was different.

Fueled by dry, dense vegetation and propelled by 40 mph winds, the fire swept northward from its starting point. Within hours, it had engulfed Ruikis’ hometown.

Grappling with depression after the disaster, Ruikis turned to creative work. They decided to create a podcast called Shaping Ash to share survivors’ stories, examine the failures in the government’s response, and explore the changes that have occurred in the wake of the fire.

“We’re shaping ashes, because it’s what’s left,” Ruikis, now 23, said of the podcast’s title. “But we still have the power to shape those ashes.”

Ruikis hopes that connecting survivors and examining the structural barriers that have slowed recovery will help effect change as wildfires and other climate disasters become more frequent and dangerous.

“The podcast is also like a prayer,” they said. “It’s a hope that we can all become more connected and shape our future together.”

“The podcast is also like a prayer. It’s a hope that we can all become more connected and shape our future together.”

Marcella Ruikis (left) and her mother, Susan Wells.
Courtesy Isabella Ruikis

THE PILOT EPISODE of Shaping Ash tells the story of the Almeda Drive Fire from the perspective of Ruikis’ family, including their mother, Marcella Ruikis, and grandmother, Susan Wells, both artists who lived in the same mobile home neighborhood in Talent.

“I loved the ash trees,” Wells says at the beginning of the episode. “They would all turn brilliant gold in the fall, it was just glorious. … Little did I envision them all burning torches.”

When Ruikis called their mother on the day of the fire, Marcella was hurriedly loading the family car with important paperwork, a few belongings and as much family art as possible. She could already see flames in the evergreen trees just beyond the neighborhood’s boundaries. “There was no warning system,” Marcella said. “The fire was right across the road.”

It moved so swiftly that agencies scrambled to organize a response. Evacuation alerts, when they came, went out too late for many.

Ruikis stayed on the phone with Marcella while police herded her and other residents out of Talent. The flames hopscotched wildly between homes and businesses on each side of the road. At one point, Marcella said, “I saw the road ahead, and everything just turned bright orange. Propane tanks were exploding next to the road.”

It took hours — with a waning tank of gas — to travel what was usually just a 20-minute drive to Medford, where Ruikis’ grandmother was sheltering with a family friend.

That night, they heard from a neighbor who slipped through the checkpoints into Talent to survey the damage. “I texted him to ask if our house burned down,” Ruikis said. “He was like, ‘Yeah, dude. It’s all gone. It’s all gone.’”

The Almeda Drive Fire had ripped through their neighborhood, leaving nothing; the porch with the wind chimes, where Ruikis and their grandmother had spent so many long summer evenings, the kitchen table, where they shared bowls of homemade rice pudding — it was all gone now. Art studios full of tools and equipment, irreplaceable family photographs, and heirlooms — all reduced to ash. “Some of my most treasured pieces of art that I’ve gathered over the years are gone,” said Marcella.

Fire retardant covers the ground in the Talent Mobile Estates two weeks after the fire.
Isabella Ruikis

More than 2,600 homes were lost in the fire, the most destructive in Oregon’s history.

The following week, Ruikis returned to the Rogue Valley. But the emotional toll of losing family homes and witnessing the widespread destruction left them depressed and exhausted, unable to work. “For a few months, I was just kind of drifting,” they said. “I was just like, ‘I don’t have the emotional capacity to do anything but just exist right now.’”

The community came together in the face of inadequate government supportan estimated 70% of those who applied to the Federal Emergency Management Agency for aid after 2020’s wildfires were denied. Ruikis was repeatedly struck by the question that would inspire Shaping Ash: What do you do when the systems that are supposed to support a community after a disaster don’t serve everyone?

Volunteers help clean up the ruins of Marcella Ruikis's home after the Almeda Drive Fire in 2020..
Marcella Ruikis
What do you do when the systems that are supposed to support a community after a disaster don’t serve everyone?

IT TOOK MONTHS of rest, healing and encouragement from mentors and friends before Ruikis was ready to commit to the podcast.

“I think Bella felt some inspiration and desire to do something for their community, to understand these stories and connect the dots,” said Cameron Simpson, a friend and fellow survivor who provided early support with sound engineering for the podcast.

Ruikis shared a draft of the pilot episode online in January to drum up financial support. It attracted dozens of individual donors through a GoFundMe campaign and received grant money from The Ford Family Foundation and The Hearth, a local organization that supports community storytelling.

Donors provided about $13,000 to support the production of an extended pilot and four additional episodes, tackling subjects including barriers to FEMA access, the Rogue Valley’s affordable housing crisis, and Indigenous cultural burning practices. The new pilot and first episode will be released on Sept. 8, 2022 — the two-year anniversary of the fire.

The Talent Mobile Estates photographed a year after the Almeda Drive Fire.
Isabella Ruikis

Ruikis calls the podcast a “movement journalism” project because it engages with local communities and challenges the status quo. “Movement journalism is, like, gaining trust in a community and collecting stories,” they said. “The part that is really compelling to me about it is the opportunity to cultivate shared political analyses of events in our community.”

Mark Yaconelli, executive director at The Hearth, said he believes in Ruikis’ ability to deliver moving stories that uplift fire survivors. “They know what it’s like to suffer the loss of a home,” he said. They can “feel the storylines in the community.”

Yaconelli also hopes the podcast will influence the ways in which authorities respond to future climate catastrophes. “It could affect what actions government agencies and philanthropic agencies take,” he said.

“They know what it’s like to suffer the loss of a home. They can feel the storylines in the community.”

As for their own future, after they graduate from Oregon State in September with a degree in ecological engineering, Ruikis plans to explore career paths in the public sphere and stay engaged in social movement organizing. They believe the community-based efforts they saw flourish in the wake of the Almeda Drive Fire offer a useful framework for building more resilient communities.

“Basically, what I’m writing about are these systems that don’t help everyone, and we can’t put our hope in that,” said Ruikis. “But I do have faith in my neighbors, my community, the place that I grew up in, and the people that live in it. I have faith in the connections that we make and maintain.”

Marianne Dhenin is a disabled journalist covering social and environmental justice and politics. You can follow her @mariannedhe.

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Note: This story was updated with more recent FEMA numbers after it was originally published.