Residents praise firefighters' efforts after near-disaster
MEDFORD — Residents in the foothills near Roxy Ann Peak awoke Tuesday to a world transformed by fire.
Hillsides the color of wheat were now black with ash after a 630-acre fire raged along the western flank of Roxy Ann Monday afternoon, from the Vista Pointe area near McAndrews Road north to Manzanita Heights.
Residents recalled their horror as they watched the wind-fueled flames grow.
"I thought sure my house was going to go up in flames," recalled Dr. Mike Korpa, who lives in the Manzanita Heights area. He and his wife, Vicki, had rushed home, grabbed a few valuables and were standing in their driveway when a helicopter flew within shouting distance.
"We thought the fire was half a mile away," said Vicki Korpa. "But the wind blew it right over the hill (50 yards away). It was so fast. The pilot was right here in front of us yelling 'get out now!' It was pretty scary."
Firefighters from as far away as Eugene spent Tuesday dousing stubborn hot spots and looking for flare-ups. North Foothill Road was closed to traffic in the morning hours between East McAndrews and Coker Butte roads as crews continued to work on the Deer Ridge fire.
The cause of that blaze and another, 145-acre fire that sparked off Siskiyou Boulevard in Ashland just hours earlier remained under investigation, but Oregon Department of Forestry officials said both were likely human-caused.
No homes were burned in the Medford blaze, and no injuries were reported. An unoccupied house at the corner of Tolman Creek Road and Morninglight Drive in Ashland burned.
A small army of firefighters, helicopters and air tankers were called from the Siskiyou fire to the Medford blaze shortly after it was reported around 2:30 p.m.
Repeatedly dousing the Deer Ridge fire with buckets of water, helicopters and a crew of 18 firefighters from Happy Camp, Calif., saved the row of homes on Manzanita Heights, said the Korpas.
"We were nerve-racked, watching it through binoculars from my mother's house below," said Mike Korpa. "We could see them hosing down the fire. They saved the house. The flames were huge."
As the fire raced toward their home Monday, Laura Jane Littrell, neighbor of the Korpas to the north, was coddling her sick cat on the porch and was puzzled why the cat kept looking up, toward the south.
"Then I looked up and I thought, oh boy. It was so quick. It got serious fast," said Littrell. "My main concern was the kitties. I stood on the back deck and watched in awe. It turned fast from being a spectator sport to being a survival, get-out situation."
Littrell, the secretary of the neighborhood association on the ridge, grabbed her list of neighbors, set up a check station at the gate down the hill and called them all, making sure everyone was out.
The tight-knit community gathered at the gate to watch in suspense and horror, Littrell said.
"I thought, God bless those firefighters. Whatever happens, they did their best," she said.
Her husband, Mike Littrell, took a tour of the blackened knoll about 50 yards south of the Korpa home.
"I was just amazed, the firepower they had to get the job done," he said. "If I would have lost my home, it wouldn't be because they didn't try."
Dewey Wilson, a homeowner further north on the ridge, said the ferocity and speed of the fire "caught me a little unaware. I was washing the roof down and a helicopter pilot yelled it was time to leave. God bless the firefighters. They put a lot of power up here. We got the kids, dogs and photos out."
All residents said that firefighting and forestry officials had kept in touch with the neighborhood over the years, instructing residents and requiring good access, brush-clearing, escape routes and water sources.
Mike Korpa said firefighters already knew they could set up a base on the Korpas' grounds, which is where the blaze was finally brought to a halt.
"We cleared enough brush over the years," he said. "The landscape doesn't look very pretty but it works. We cleaned out the deadwood for hundreds of feet in every direction.
"We did everything right," he added, "except the firewood. I'd put four cords under the house. I thought fire season was probably over."
The Federal Emergency Management Agency Tuesday authorized the use of federal funds for the South County Fire Complex, as the Ashland and Medford blazes are now called.
The authorization makes FEMA money available to pay 75 percent of the state's eligible firefighting costs under an approved grant for managing, mitigating and controlling designated fires. Eligible costs can include expenses for field camps; equipment use, repair and replacement; tools, materials and supplies; and mobilization and demobilization activities.
John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at email@example.com.