Max Hamilton, who lives in his third decade, works 60 to 70 hours a week at his clothing company in Los Angeles, yet he finds enough time to work and communicate with his parents every two days.
On the morning of September 8, Hamilton phoned his mother in Ashland, Oregon, when his mother interrupted their conversation, saying, “I see some smoke there. It seems that something is burning.”
A few minutes earlier, the fire was burning in a field on the northern tip of Ashland, a leafy college town in a valley between the Siskiyo and Cascade mountain ranges. The fire broke out in the valley, driven by fierce winds, until it quickly reached the town of Talent a few miles away, then moved to the city of Phoenix, and finally to Medford, which has a population of about 80,000.
It is true that firefighters were able to limit its spread, but by nightfall, the towns of Talent and Phoenix were both burned. It is reported that there are about 110 thousand people living in the “Rogue Valley” in the United States.
Since that day, Hamilton, who grew up in Talent, spends the day and night making calls and exchanging messages with people in his hometown. In addition to tracking news of the devastating fire path, and chatting with family and friends who had to flee.
Then, before dawn the next morning, Hamilton made a decision. “I thought something must be done,” he says, “and decided to take all my clothes, load them in a truck, and go there.” Hamilton thought that once he returned to his hometown, he would be able to understand the requirements of the relief effort and be able to contribute to it.
Hamilton’s main business is at a small company called Limitless Productions, a company that makes fashion for young designers and small brands that thrive on the margins of the gigantic industry.
Rather than distributing their clothes to traditional retail stores or even through online bazaars such as “Amazon” and “Etsy”, many of these companies sell directly to customers on their websites through virtual stores.
When the customer makes the purchase, and at the close of the sale, Limitless enters a race against time to fulfill the demands, usually subcontracting tailors, dye shops, and the like for implementation, and then packing the clothes and shipping them within two or three weeks.
In some cases, Limitless operates online customer stores as well. The prepaid production helps Hamilton’s clients build their businesses, without the need to invest their money in manufacturing merchandise that may not be sold. As he says, the custom-made nature of the merchandise creates a sense of exclusivity towards customers.
At the time of the fire, Limitless was in the process of two production processes. Hamilton delegated possible tasks to his four employees to be dedicated to his efforts on the issue of the fires. “It was virtually impossible for me to focus on anything else,” he says. Hamilton reached out to customers, suppliers, subcontractors, and friends in the apparel trade, many of whom promised to make donations quickly.
The clothing manufacturer Affection Holdings, where he previously worked, donated thousands of T-shirts and face masks, as well as half a container of household goods.
Hamilton took from the surplus Limitless stock and bought with his own money T-shirts, blankets and other items from his suppliers who sold them to him at cost. His total expenses after accounting for the truck rental and the wholesale value of his surplus stock were approximately $ 25,000.
It was around this time that sisters Nina and Maya Schmidt, who grew up in Rogue Valley and now live in Los Angeles, heard about what Hamilton had done. They, too, were trying to organize a relief campaign. Nina is the founder of Earth Engels, a group that connects models with volunteer opportunities.
“They started spreading the word across Los Angeles that we were going to take this truck to the fire zone,” says Hamilton. “Maya has been bringing in large loads herself all weekend.”
By Monday, Hamilton had loaded about 35 boxes of personal hygiene items, diapers, shoes, appliances, canned food, and more into a U-Hole truck about seven meters in length, as well as clothes, blankets, and masks. That’s 35,000 parts, with a retail value close to $ 1 million.
By seven o’clock in the morning on Tuesday, a week after the fire broke out and the phone call with his mother. Hamilton, his younger sister Casey and his uncle Mike Steinbergs, the Limitless warehouse manager, met in a U-Haul truck and set off for the area.
The trip north to Oregon would take about 12 hours on I-5, a trip Hamilton used to take “more times than I can definitely count,” he says. “I can probably drive on this road while I’m sleeping,” he added. The fires also broke out in California in late summer, so smog covered the highway, reducing the visibility of nearby grasslands and olive groves on the roads.
Hamilton sat in the passenger seat and the phone did not leave his ear in an effort to keep production moving forward in the Los Angeles business and finalize the distribution arrangements scheduled for the following morning. His high school principal linked him with Kids Unlimited, an after-school organization that runs a special school for poor children, most of whom are of Mexican origin. The group showed Hamilton a parking lot on its Medford campus for distribution. “We have had a lot of children affected by the fires and it is normal to be involved in something like this,” says Tom Cole, founder of Kids Unlimited.
The demographics of Rogue Valley have changed dramatically over the past twenty years. The city of Ashland has attracted tech entrepreneurs and wealthy retirees, but other parts of it have struggled as environmental protection has been sharply curtailed by the woodworking business.
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Agriculture, particularly growing grapes for wine production, and recently growing Indian hemp and hashish have helped rebound from this slump in the region, but the jobs created are paying less than logging.
It is reported that most of these jobs were performed by immigrants. According to Cole, about a third of Medford’s kindergarten class last year was Hispanic. It appears that the path taken by the fire has disproportionately affected this community group, and more than once. Cole says the fire cut off the state highway and wiped out a trailer stop on the other side.
Soon after Hamilton prepared his plans, he published and advertised them on the “Facebook” platform, and the news quickly spread widely, leading to the organization of local radio and television interviews with him in Oregon. “We were receiving calls from organizations that were helping to house many displaced families, trying to find out how to help these families,” says Cole.
All this meant that Hamilton could expect many people to attend, many of whom had reached the edge of a precipice due to the fire. And in the small parking lot amid the Coronavirus pandemic. He needed to prevent the gathering from turning into a stampede, to maintain a safe social distance, and at the same time protect the goods he was distributing.
The young entrepreneur successfully dealt with this dilemma. At Affection, where he started before starting his own business, Hamilton has grown in the company, going from assisting with production to developing products and sourcing within just six months. “He was very creative, so if someone in our brands wanted to bring a new idea to someone with a production mindset, they would always bring Max to meetings,” says Lucinda Collins, Operations Director at Affection.
Hamilton found that he needed about 20 volunteers at all times to manage the crowd, provide guidance and resupply the stocks. To achieve this, a high school teacher assembled a number of students, while Hamilton’s friends and family from Schmidt helped out. In light of the constant smoke and the rampant pandemic, they had to wear masks and switch work shifts between them frequently. Hamilton was so busy that he did not stop to think of Tallent and what had happened even on the way north.