Rising from the ashes

The wooden skeleton of a new house is rising above a burned lot at 897 Oak Knoll Drive this week.

Just three months ago, the home where the Thomas family lived was destroyed alongside 10 others in Ashland's worst residential fire in at least a century.

Since then, the street has changed drastically each week, if not each day. First the Oak Knoll Drive residents poked through the burned-out remains of their homes, trying to salvage something — anything. Then, crews treated the sites for asbestos contamination, removed the rubble and excavated everything but the ash clinging to the ground.

Last month, the former Oak Knoll Drive residents began rebuilding. One other lot besides the Thomas' now has a house frame on it. On eight other parcels, crews are laying foundations, installing plumbing or otherwise beginning to construct new homes.

Rebuilding on Oak Knoll Drive

The four views of the 800 block of Oak Knoll Drive displayed in the video below were captured (from top to bottom) on Aug. 27, Sept. 16, Oct. 21 and Nov. 11.

"Do I wish that August 24th hadn't happened?" Julie Thomas said. "Yeah, I do, but it did. And I think it's good to see the new houses going up."

Her husband, Dan Thomas, who owns Circle T Construction, is rebuilding the family's house. He plans to finish putting the wooden frame together this month, before the winter rains start.

On Saturday, he gave his wife a tour of the new structure.

"I said, 'This is the bedroom, this is the closet,'" he said. "It doesn't look like much yet, but it's nice to start seeing it."

Thomas is working long hours this week to try to get the roof on before Thanksgiving, before the winter weather hits.

"Once the roof's on, I can enjoy my turkey," he said Monday. "The trusses are coming Thursday. I need to get the trusses down and the roof down and locked. Then the pressure's off and I don't have to rush."

He'll install a fire-resistant roof and concrete siding, in case of a future fire.

"I have the old shake roof," he said. "I could put it back, but I don't want to."

Thomas plans to work on the interior of the home this winter, installing electrical wiring and insulation.

He's building a virtually identical house to the one that burned, changing the layout of certain rooms slightly, to stay within the amount he believes his insurance company will provide. He decided a few weeks ago to lower the garage by several feet, which will allow him to build a TV room above it.

"It's nice to be able to make some adjustments, since it's my own house," he said.

Thomas was recently contracted to rebuild another home on his block, and is working doubly hard to get that structure up before winter.

"We're trying to get it to the same stage as mine, but it's a month behind," he said.

The single-story house at 897 Oak Knoll Drive that burned in the August fire held 10 years of memories for the Thomas family.

"There's stuff we miss every day," said Julie Thomas, an Ashland School District receptionist. "It's always sad that a lot of things we've lost had memories attached to them, but we can still create new memories in this new house."

Dan and Julie Thomas' three children all spent several years in the home, the older two, Brianna and Corey, moving out to attend college. Their youngest child, Brady, 17, is a senior at Ashland High School.

Brady is eager to move out of the family's rental home in Ashland into the new house at their old address, Julie Thomas said.

"Every day he's asking his dad about the house," she said. "We just drove past it so he could walk through and see things. Now that there are walls, it's exciting."

He's also helping Dan Thomas work on the house on weekends and after school, along with some of his teammates on the high school's baseball team.

Although the 800 block of Oak Knoll Drive looks drastically different than it did in the days immediately following the fire, there are still reminders of the catastrophe. Through the frame of the Thomas' new house, you can see a charred fence, half-eaten in the fire.

But, soon — maybe by Thanksgiving — that view will be obscured by wooden walls and a roof.

"I'm getting it done, piece by piece," Dan Thomas said. "There's still a lot of work to do."

He hopes to finish the home this spring, in time to have a high school graduation party there for Brady.

"I really want to have a graduation party for Brady in our new home," Julie Thomas said, "and I want people to spill on the carpet and it won't matter because then it will be a home — it will be our home."

Contact reporter Hannah Guzik at 541-482-3456 ext. 226 or hguzik@dailytidings.com.

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