The Oregon Department of Transportation will not build a fire wall between Interstate 5 and the Oak Knoll neighborhood, where a fire destroyed 11 homes in August, officials said Monday.
The fire victims have been pushing for a wall since they started rebuilding their homes on Oak Knoll Drive because they fear a repeat of the Aug. 24 fire.
"We want a concrete wall there because we all have a fear that next summer someone's going to throw a cigarette on the ground and this could happen again," said Dan Thomas, who owns Circle T Construction and is rebuilding his family's home and another home on the block.
The state only builds walls to buffer sound — not fire — when it expands highways and when sound studies show that walls are warranted, said Jerry Marmon, ODOT district manager for southwestern Oregon.
"We're very sympathetic to what happened there in the Oak Knoll neighborhood," he said. "But we don't build fire-protection walls. The only walls we build are sound walls and those are typically associated with modernization projects where we're increasing lanes and capacity."
ODOT is widening the bridge over Exit 14, but is not widening the freeway, so the location doesn't warrant a sound wall, Marmon said.
Fueled by strong winds and low humidity, the Oak Knoll fire started in a brush field near Washington Street, consumed an abandoned barn and jumped the freeway, igniting the 11 houses within minutes. Firefighters have said that embers from where the fire began, on the other side of Interstate 5, were traveling 1,400 feet in the air, and easily could have ignited other homes in the area.
"We're not going to be able to build a wall adjacent to both sides of the freeway that's high enough to prevent conditions like those on that day," Marmon said.
However, the fire victims say building a wall could at least help slow the spread of another potential fire and might save homes from igniting like candles, one after another.
"Are we going to have this string of mishmash fences back there again?" Thomas said. "It doesn't seem smart to build a wooden fence again."
The homeowners could pitch in to build the wall themselves on their property, but the cost likely would prove prohibitive for some, Thomas said. They also would likely need to secure a planning department variance, a potentially time-consuming process.
Hannah Guzik is a reporter for the Ashland Daily Tidings. Reach her at 541-708-1158 or firstname.lastname@example.org