His voice rang out through the rubble and ash amid the unrecognizable chaos where their house once stood.
“Babe!” Phoenix Sigalove said. “Oh, my God. Come here.”
Sigalove and his partner, Lichen Richardson, were sifting through the debris of their burned down home, searching the wreckage for anything — literally anything — that may have survived the devastating Almeda fire that decimated swaths of Southern Oregon, including their neighborhood in the tiny town of Phoenix.
It was the first time Richardson and Sigalove had returned since hastily evacuating on Sept. 8, when the violent blaze roared north from Ashland. Less than two weeks later, their quiet cul-de-sac looked like a warzone, with huge plots of rubble resting in place of houses. The air was smoky and acrid, overwhelmed by the scent of sulfur.
Out front, where their three elementary-aged kids used to play, the engine block of their old pickup truck was melted to the concrete and remnants of liquefied steel oozed down the side of the street.
“Bombed,” Sigalove said, describing his old neighborhood. “It looks like everything is just gone. It’s hard to believe.”
More than 2,300 homes have been destroyed by the ruthless Almeda fire and, in the last two weeks, thousands of folks have been forced to flee, find temporary shelter and, ultimately, come to grips with the reality they’ve lost everything. Photos, family heirlooms, childhood keepsakes, important legal documents. Poof. In an instant, they all were reduced to a few inches of ash.
For Sigalove and Richardson, the blaze was especially merciless. It not only pulverized their house, but also their livelihood, as their popular food truck, Daddy Ramen, had been parked outside when Almeda scorched through. It, like everything else, was destroyed.
“It doesn’t look recognizable,” Richardson said of her neighborhood. “It’s just a field of devastation.”
But amid all the devastation, there also was hope. And when Richardson heard Sigalove’s voice echo through the rubble, she carried optimism that he had found the only thing he truly regretted leaving behind, the only lost object that had brought him to tears in the immediate aftermath of the fire.
“I still just keep coming back to the ridiculous one-in-a-billion possibility that this thing would be found at all,” Richardson said. “When I heard him call me, I thought: ‘That must be it.’”
Richardson and Sigalove met five years ago when Lola Danforth, a mutual friend, introduced them by happenstance one day in town.
Both were newly divorced and Sigalove was embroiled in an acrimonious battle with his ex-wife over custody of their children. The last thing either wanted was a serious relationship.
But love always seems to find those who aren’t looking for it and, rather quickly, the couple became close. Richardson, 35, who grew up in the Rogue Valley and graduated from Ashland High School, had been a fixture in the area for years. Sigalove, 49, moved to Ashland from the Bay Area in 2010 and quickly endeared himself to the quirky arts community with his music — he writes and plays guitar — and his creative writing. His one-man show called Phoenix Blues, which is the story of his yearlong horseback ride from Montana to Mexico, has been featured at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
Before long, the couple moved into the house on that Phoenix cul-de-sac, creating what Richardson calls, a “nice Brady-bunching of our families.” They were devoted parents to their three children — Malaya (7), Llewella (9) and Asa (11) — and they shared a love for arts, culture and cooking. As the two worked through their divorces, custody battles and seismic life changes, they found their stresses dissolve in the kitchen.
“Both of us have always loved food, always loved cooking,” Sigalove said. “The pursuit of learning better ways to make different recipes was a very cathartic thing for both of us as we moved past our previous relationships and worked through our challenges.”
As they healed and connected over the stove, Richardson and Sigalove, for whatever reason, became obsessed with ramen. During their first year at the cul-de-sac, the couple bought countless ramen-related cookbooks, watched seemingly every ramen-focused YouTube video and boiled endless bowls of the popular Japanese comfort food. Hundreds and hundreds of bowls were made as they diligently worked to create the most delicious broth, cook the perfect egg, and boil a faultless noodle.
Then, their new passion blossomed into a business idea. They would open a food truck and bring homemade ramen to Rogue Valley. The couple raised money through friends and family and, in 2018, Daddy Ramen was born.
Why name it Daddy Ramen? After enduring a bitter fight to preserve a relationship with his children, Sigalove wanted them to know it was worth every bit of the heartache.
“Being a father is the thing by which I define myself,” he said. “For me personally, it was a statement that, first and foremost, this is what I am and who I am. It’s a way for my children to always know that being their dad is the most important thing that I will ever know.”
For 2 ½ years, Richardson and Sigalove visited farmers markets in Ashland and Medford, parked for lunch and dinner in Talent and set up shop at summer festivals and concerts throughout Southern Oregon. They catered weddings, served winery functions and cooked for private parties. Along the way, they decided the business that helped them heal should also help others, so they launched a “pay it forward” program in which customers could buy an extra bowl of ramen that would later be served free to someone in need.
At any point, anyone could approach the truck and enjoy a bowl on the house. The program became synonymous with their business and Richardson estimates that Daddy Ramen has served more than 2,000 free bowls. Demand spiked last spring, when the coronavirus crisis crippled the economy and caused a massive hike in unemployment.
Initially, Richardson and Sigalove feared COVID-19 would end their business. Instead, while other restaurants in Southern Oregon were temporarily shuttered amid statewide stay-at-home orders, Daddy Ramen, one of the few local takeout food options available, boomed.
The couple set up five days a week in Talent and routinely worked 12-and 14-hour shifts to keep up with demand. The generosity of customers — and the number of free bowls distributed to those in need — increased along with business.
“We did a lot of pay-it-forwards then,” Richardson said. “So many people contributed to the program. It was such a beautiful thing to experience.”
A few months later, in a terrible twist of fate, Sigalove and Richardson would experience this beauty from an entirely different perspective.
At 8:39 a.m. on Monday, Sept. 7, Richardson and Sigalove posted a cheerful, heart-emoji filled message on the Daddy Ramen Facebook page, filling folks in with the latest on the food truck.
After a two-week break spent exploring “some of the most beautiful places in Oregon with our family,” the message read, the truck would be back on Wednesday to serve lunch and dinner in Talent, complete with new specials. “We look forward to serving you,” the message read.
The next morning, the family awoke in the cul-de-sac to the sound of powerful wind blasts they had never heard before. The ominous gusts were so mighty, they toppled everything in the yard and garden, including a massive 100-pound planter. But the family went about the day and, before long, the kids were sitting down in front of laptops for their first day of distance learning.
The classes were short-lived, however. Halfway through the morning lesson, as weather worsened, Zoom broadcasts ended hastily because of technical difficulties. By 11, Richardson said, she started to hear reports of the first fires in northern Ashland. But they were two towns and a good 13 miles away, so while she was concerned for people down south, Richardson was not immediately worried for her family’s safety.
“By the time school was done, around noon or so, it was on our radar,” Richardson said. “But I don’t think anyone — least of all us — expected it to move as fast as it did as far as it did.”
But the blaze quickly bulldozed north and, soon, Richardson and Sigalove heard that I-5 was closed in both directions. Evacuation orders did not arrive, but their concern was escalating, so Richardson downloaded an emergency app on her smartphone. Before long, it notified them a fire was burning three miles from their house. They decided it made sense to leave, if for no other reason than to clear the way for local emergency personnel.
They told their kids to pack a bag and grab a “thing or two that was special,” because the family was heading to Grants Pass to stay in a hotel for the night. By 2:30, when a storage facility less than a half-mile away went up in flames, the family decided it was time to evacuate. They scooped up their 17 year-old Belgian Shepherd, piled in the car and sped away.
“No one instructed us to evacuate,” Richardson said. “It just seemed like the best choice. We said, ‘Let’s get in the car, head to a hotel for the night and we’ll be back tomorrow.’ We didn’t pack with the idea we’d never come home again. We left the food truck parked right out front. I think the last thing we said to each other was, ‘We’ll be back tomorrow. Let’s not worry about it.’”
They went to bed that night featuring the worst, and the next morning, the fears were confirmed: The fire had destroyed everything.
“I still feel in shock from it,” Richardson said. “I still feel a distance from it that does not feel quite real. There’s still a sense of being away from home on an odd vacation that is different from normal day-to-day life. I haven’t gotten all the way there yet and I’m not sure how or when that happens. I can only just live day-by-day, and even hour-by-hour, right now.”
Because things escalated so quickly and because they left thinking their house would be fine, Sigalove and Richardson left behind virtually everything. Family photos. Baby shoes. Sentimental jewelry. Keepsakes. Almost nothing made it out.
And for Sigalove, that included his great-grandfather’s platinum watch, an irreplaceable heirloom that has been in his family for 84 years.
“When we made it to the hotel in Grants Pass, Lichen asked me, ‘Did you get your dad’s watch?’” Sigalove said. “And it just hit me. I lost something that had been so valuable for so many generations, something that had been put in my charge to keep safe. When I had told my father the next day I had lost his watch in the fire, it was the first time I broke down, and that’s not something I’ve done many times as an adult with my father. It was a very emotional thing.”
The Almeda fire started two minutes away from Danforth’s home in Ashland and, if not for fate and wind, it would have been her neighborhood that was reduced to rubble. But fate and wind spared her, pushing the blaze north toward Sigalove and Richardson, the friends she introduced by chance five years ago.
When Danforth learned they were evacuating, she was overwhelmed.
“They are two of the most passionate and hardworking people I know,” Danforth said. “I’ve witnessed the blood, sweat and tears they’ve put into their ramen business, and the unwavering commitment they’ve made to keep it running, all while raising children. It’s been so impressive and so inspirational.”
After watching Richardson and Sigalove help so many during the last 2 ½ years, Danforth decided it was time to return the favor. She created a GoFundMe page for her beloved friends, sharing the story of their loss, their business and their ethos, while debuting with a modest goal of raising $5,000. The page, Danworth said, was an “instant hit,” and she quickly increased the goal to $10,000 … then to $15,000 … and, in less than a week, up to $30,000.
On Tuesday morning, 430 people had donated more than $38,000.
All the while, the Rogue Valley community came to the family’s aid. Barbara Massey, the 96 year-old mother of a family friend, recently moved into an assisted living facility and her partially-furnished house sat vacant. She insisted the family move in temporarily. Friends have cooked meals for the family — which also now includes Richardson’s mother Rebecca Murray — stocked the fridge with food, and donated clothes, air mattresses, toiletries and other essential goods.
One person even reached out to Danforth and offered to donate an acoustic guitar to Sigalove. The person didn’t know him personally, but knew he was a heralded local musician.
“We are much more comfortable being on the contributing side of things with our food,” Sigalove said. “To now be on the receiving end, it’s just really humbling and amazing. To see it take off the way it has, I can’t really put into words what that feels like. We really feel like we’re the luckiest of the luckiest. All I can say is that we are beyond grateful to the members of our community, to friends and family and to people who don’t even know us across the country, who heard about our little problem in our little town and have contributed and sent well wishes. It’s a pretty extraordinary thing to witness.”
Added Richardson: “To now be flipped around after helping people for so long, it’s an extremely humbling process. As tragic as it all has been, it also feels like a very beautiful thing.”
When Richardson and Sigalove returned to their cul-de-sac last week, they spent about an hour rummaging through the foundation of their home in search of anything salvageable.
For Sigalove, it was an opportunity to hunt for his great-grandfather’s watch.
Charles Kaplan had been awarded the platinum timepiece in 1936, after a long and distinguished career working for an insurance company. He passed it down to Sigalove’s grandfather, who passed it to Sigalove’s father, who passed it to him.
“My father’s parents and grandparents did not have very much,” Sigalove said. “But the watch was something I always used to see growing up. It was a time when people didn’t have houses full of things and garages and closets full of stuff, a time when objects they owned had a purpose and there was not much excess. This watch really represented the most valuable thing this family owned.”
So when Sigalove and Richardson arrived at the rubble that is their house, they tried to visualize the old layout and pinpoint where their bedroom might be. Sigalove, shovel in hand, beelined to that area and gazed around.
“And then all of a sudden,” he said, “I spotted it. It was on top of the ash and the rubble in that part of the room, kind of with a layer of dust sitting on top of it. Once I saw it, I just, I couldn’t believe it.”
He called out to Richardson, she approached in awe and they shared a moment neither will forget.
“There were no other items in our entire home that were sitting there like this,” Richardson said. “And we were looking for them. It’s amazing.”
Sigalove examined the watch in disbelief, flipping it over to inspect the back. The engraved name “Chaz,” for his great-grandfather, remained, and the edges were still sharp. When the fire arrived, the watch had been resting next to a silver bracelet Sigalove was gifted 20 years ago, and that bracelet was now melted in a pool of silver on the ground amid the debris. Sigalove did some research later that night and learned that silver melts at about 1,600 degrees, while platinum melts at about 3,200 degrees. So Almeda, he deduced, raged through their house at more than 2,000 degrees.
On Saturday, Sigalove called his father to relay the improbable news.
“My dad was really amazed,” he said. “I told him that, because the watch was platinum, it was able to withstand the incredible heat of the fire. He was incredulous that it could possibly still exist. The innerworkings and gears are fried and it certainly will never work again. But I if we polish it up, it will still tell the story — and now even more of the story — of our family. It’s an emotional thing for me that, in a way, brings a little hope.”
— Joe Freeman | firstname.lastname@example.org | 503-294-5183 | @BlazerFreeman | Subscribe to The Oregonian/OregonLive newsletters and podcasts for the latest news and top stories