Elements worked against fire responders

Intense heat, speed of fire beat back efforts of responders
Southeasterly winds carried embers from the Washington Street fire, top left, to the Oak Knoll neighborhood on the east side of Interstate 5. This aerial photograph was taken between 6 and 6:30 p.m. by Lee Winslow of the Oregon Department of Forestry.Lee Winslow ODF

Firefighters dumped up to 2,000 gallons a minute from hydrants, but didn't have the manpower, water or time to stop flames that roared through 11 houses Tuesday afternoon on Oak Knoll Drive in Ashland.

"We pretty much wrote off anything that was burning because we didn't have the water supply or personnel," said Capt. Jim Campbell of Jackson County Fire District No. 5 in Talent, one of multiple agencies that responded.

Oak Knoll Fire Response Time Line

4:35 p.m.: Jackson County Fire District No. 5 receives call to put out a fire at 615 Washington St.

4:36 p.m.: Fire tones sound at Ashland Fire & Rescue

4:39 p.m.: First Ashland fire engine rolls out

4:40 p.m.: Oregon Department of Forestry responds to Washington Street fire

4:43 p.m.: First Ashland fire engine arrives on Washington Street

4:45 p.m.: Fire District 5 engines arrive on Washington Street

4:52 p.m.: Fire District 5 engines are transferred to Oak Knoll

4:56 p.m.: Fire District 5 engines arrive at Oak Knoll

— Sources: Fire District 5 and Ashland Fire & Rescue

By the time the first fire engines arrived from his district, it was too late to save any of the burning houses on the east side of Interstate 5, he said.

Three of his engines set up operations at 805 Oak Knoll, the northernmost point of the fire, and crews trained their fire hoses to prevent the fire from spreading any farther north.

Two Medford engines went to the south end of the fire at 897 Oak Knoll.

Initially, Fire District 5 received a call at 4:35 p.m. to put out a fire at 615 Washington St. on the west side of Interstate 5, near Exit 14.

By 4:45 p.m., Campbell's engines were on the scene. In the meantime, embers from Washington Street blew southeast across the freeway, and the fire rapidly took hold on Oak Knoll.

At 4:52 p.m., the engines were transferred to Oak Knoll, arriving at the scene at 4:56 p.m.

When his engines arrived, Campbell said he could see heavy smoke and flames coming out of four houses, including 805 Oak Knoll.

Even though firefighters were pumping as much water as they could from fire hydrants, they could do nothing more than prevent the fire from spreading to other houses, he said. Helicopters also dropped buckets of water to quell the blaze.

Campbell said he doubts that more water would have saved the homes because they were already burning so intensely.

"You could have had 15 fire engines there and it wouldn't have helped," he said. "I'm surprised we only lost 11 houses."

Chris Chambers, a spokesman for Ashland Fire & Rescue, said he was at the Washington Street fire, but had difficulty getting over the overpass at Interstate 5 when the Oak Knoll fire blew up.

"I remember leaning on the horn trying to get the drivers' attentions," Chambers said. "We almost had to push our way through to get to the other side."

Chambers, who was driving a Ford Explorer and was one of the first on the scene, didn't have the equipment to battle the blaze so he had to make do as embers landed on the roofs of homes on Pebble Beach Drive.

"I was there with a garden hose, and it seemed like no engine came for a long time," he said. He explained that time seems to move a lot slower during emergency situations.

Chambers said he wasn't sure how long it took engines to arrive at Oak Knoll. Initially, the priority for firefighters was evacuating residents from their homes.

Could more houses have been saved if fire crews had arrived earlier?

"That's a hard question to answer," Chambers said. "Probably not. The heat was so intense."

Chambers credits Fire District 5 with saving four houses on Pebble Beach Drive, three of which sustained only damage to their roofs. The fourth was threatened by fire burning in nearby brush but was untouched.

Chambers said it is likely that 815 Oak Knoll was the first house to ignite.

The heat from 815 Oak Knoll may have ignited the house at 805, which is next door to the north, he said.

With the 16 mph winds blowing in a southeasterly direction, flames went from neighbor to neighbor, finally stopping at 897 Oak Knoll. From there the road dips downhill, and the embers were blown over to the Pebble Beach Drive area where the three homes' roofs caught fire.

Brian Balllou, spokesman for the Oregon Department of Forestry, said it is always difficult to piece together the chronology of a major fire, particularly one that engaged 135 firefighters and 16 agencies.

Once a fire gets so intense, it is also difficult to approach a house. Throw in a combination of radiant heat and ember showers, and it becomes relatively easy for the flames to travel down the street, he said.

"The bottom line is that there was a continuous string of fuel from the north end to the south end," Ballou said.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476, or e-mail dmann@mailtribune.com.



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