Weather, landscape helped fuel blaze

The Oak Knoll Dr. fire started on the west side of I-5 and crossed Interstate 5 to the Ashland housing development where 11 houses were burned. Bob Pennell / Mail Tribune photoBob Pennell

An inferno that destroyed 11 houses in a row Tuesday afternoon in Ashland is a grim reminder that any neighborhood is vulnerable to devastation if the conditions are right.

"When you get that much heat from a home being consumed, all bets are off on home construction and the type of siding and roofing you're using," said Chris Chambers, spokesman for Ashland Fire & Rescue.

Grass along the freeway and vegetation close to the houses were certainly factors in the Oak Knoll Drive fire, but add wind, heat and low moisture levels to that mix and you've got a recipe for disaster.

The 1970-era homes on Oak Knoll are above Interstate 5, so uphill drafts drove the flames toward the many cedar fences in backyards, then into cypress and juniper trees that exploded in the intense heat.

"I think if you had a stone house, it would have burned," said Dan Thomas, whose home at 897 Oak Knoll was the last one to catch on fire and looks deceptively intact from the street.

He has relatively new concrete siding that was somewhat unscathed in the front during the blaze, but he did have cedar shakes on the roof that burned, collapsing in places but leaving some rooms with relatively little damage.

Other roofs to the north that had composition shingles were also reduced to ashes, so Thomas' cedar shingles may or may not have been a factor.

"I know the cedar shingles are not the best thing," he said.

Unlike some of his neighbors, Thomas watered his lawn, which increased the moisture content and could have prevented flames from attacking the side of his house. He also tried to keep vegetation away from the siding.

In addition, the fire was burning so hot to the south of his street, firefighters were unable to go any closer than Thomas' house. As a result, they were able to continuously douse his home.

"I don't think they could get to the other houses like they could get to mine," he said.

Despite the efforts, the house that Thomas has been remodeling is a total loss, while his neighbor to the south is fine.

He said that the fire rampaged down the street at a frightening pace that overwhelmed homeowners and fire crews.

"It all hit so quickly and it was so fast," he said.

Chambers said fire engines couldn't park on the street in front of the burning houses because the heat was so intense.

Brian Balllou, spokesman for the Oregon Department of Forestry, said Thomas' house had a 15- to 25-foot break in vegetation in the back, giving firefighters a defensive position.

Looking at Thomas' house, Ballou said he would normally expect it to be completely destroyed because of the cedar shingles.

"The firefighters must have shot a lot of water into the throat of this thing to keep it from being completely destroyed," he said.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476, or e-mail

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