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Smoke filled skies a half-century ago

It was 105 degrees on Aug. 8, 1959, when two fires broke out in the dry grass above the railroad tracks by Jackson Hot Springs, near Highway 99 and South Valley View Road.

The fires grew quickly, driven by steady winds, and began climbing through the Ashland Mine Road area toward Wrights Creek canyon, raising a giant plume of smoke and ash.

By nightfall, the flames had traveled five miles to the crest of the Ashland watershed, and thousands of awed townsfolk watched as the flames consumed big pines and firs that exploded in the dark. Many feared the flames would creep into town.

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival went on with its production of "Antony and Cleopatra," despite the flames on nearby hills, helping the Ashland Fire Department keep traffic off the streets.

"It was a terrible conflagration," said Bill Patton, the festival's retired executive director. "The trees exploded like Roman candles in the intense heat. The wind was blowing. It was amazing. We'd turn and look at the audience and here were a thousand faces, cherry red, reflecting the flames."

The actors playing Antony and Cleopatra were visiting Ashland, staying in the motor court then located in Lithia Park, recalled Patton's wife, Shirley. "When they left for the theater, they took their precious things with them. But the fire stopped at the crest."

The original Elizabethan Theatre, which had become a fire hazard, had been torn down and a new theater was built just in time for the 1959 season. It had opened for its five-week run only 12 days earlier.

"We wondered if it would all be destroyed. The paint was still wet," said Shirley Patton, who was on stage that night. "There was a pervasive buzz from the fire and the people fighting it, a sort of sound in the atmosphere."

Bill Patton, who was selling tickets that evening, said actors would go to the back deck of the Elizabethan Theatre between their scenes to watch the flames. Some almost missed their curtain calls.

Karen Smith, an Ashland native, was 16 and selling pies at the festival that summer.

"It was so odd to be in the back of the performance, while the fire dominated the play. It was very scary," Smith said. "It crosses my mind to this day, how scared we were. It helped the community understand the importance of vegetation in the watershed."

Ironically, as flames crackled overhead, the crowd heard Cleopatra say, in her dying words at play's end, "I am fire and air! My other elements I give to baser life!"

The weather could hardly have been worse for the firefighters. Winds were 10 to 15 mph, humidity was 11 percent and it was 105 degrees. By late afternoon, winds increased to 25 to 30 mph and the fire blew up.

Henry Kneebone, 88, who has lived on Orchard Street all his life, said the fire "really burst through there. I lost 40 acres. We were scared, didn't like it at all. Dad and I were eating dinner and we saw the smoke boiling up (from the direction of Ashland Mine Road) and I said, 'That doesn't look good.' The Forest Service wasn't getting a handle on it."

City Administrator Elmer Biegel volunteered use of Lithia Park for fire camps, supplying toilets, water and staging areas for 300 people. The Twin Plunges pool gave firefighters free showers, swimming, suits and towels.

The flames ran up Wrights Creek and the ridge above it (atop Strawberry Lane), a few yards south of the Kneebone home, driven by prevailing up-canyon northwest winds.

In the hours before midnight, backfires were started behind the homes along Ashland Creek. A sudden wind shift during the night helped save the 14,000-acre watershed, Kneebone said.

"It was about midnight, the wind changed and started coming from the south. That stopped the fire."

The Mail Tribune's report of the fire in its Sunday edition described "a horribly thrilling display as a dense, multi-colored cloud of smoke covered southern skies," and pillars of smoke "that thrust like an atomic cloud thousands of feet in the air."

The next morning, "there was so much smoke you couldn't see anything," Kneebone said. "At daybreak, seven bulldozers came up Strawberry Lane. Four went one way and three the other way and they started mopping it up."

On the second day, winds died down and the temperature dropped 10 degrees. Crews struggled to put out hundreds of burning snags and downed logs to keep the flames from taking off again, but fire bosses realized it would take days to drive tankers up the steep, narrow roads to high elevations.

The old Skyline gold mine became a water source for the firefighters. The mine had been plagued with seepage, and it was full of water. Crews pumped 300,000 gallons out of the mine to douse the flames.

The cost of fighting the fire was put at $100,000 (at least $725,000 in current dollars), with $75,000 in lost timber value. A lot of second-growth conifer forest was lost, said Kneebone. The fire-killed timber was salvaged, and the steep slopes were seeded to restrict erosion. Steeper slopes were terraced.

"They did try to reforest with conifer," said Marty Main, a consulting forester with Small Woodland Services of Ashland. "Reforestation wasn't that good in 1959. Hardwoods and shrub dominate the site now. Today, you've got plants that like wildfire. Lots of madrone. They think fire is great."

Only a few sheds and barns in the Ashland Mine Road area burned, but Main noted there are "tons" of homes now in the area.

No suspects were ever arrested in connection with the fires, but Kneebone said it was common knowledge that "two little kids were playing with matches. They figured out who did it. Their mother wasn't watching them."

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

The fast-moving fire left dead trees and a blackened landscape in its wake. Fifty years later, few conifers have returned to the burn area.