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Blackwell fire burns 160 acres

A fast-moving fire devoured at least one house and ravaged 160 acres on Blackwell Hill in rural Central Point Sunday, prompting evacuations, road closures and a multi-agency battle from the air and ground.

"We saw it when it first started," said Kristie Oreb, who lives in the 11600 block of Blackwell Road. "We didn't think it would get this big. We saw the flames around the house. Then we saw the trees on fire. It is crazy."

Residents watched the fire from the roadside, transfixed by a massive, swirling plume of orange-black smoke and the ruckus of thudding helicopter blades, screaming sirens and rumbling aircraft darting across the sky. It was like a war zone.

The fire originated at just after 4 p.m. in a blackberry patch near a house at 11912 Blackwell Road, about a mile north of Interstate 5, gobbling up the house before galloping up the hillside and threatening to destroy an unknown number of other structures. It's unclear whether the home was occupied, but no injuries were reported.

The fire remained under investigation Sunday night, and the cause had not been determined, said Brian Ballou, a spokesman for the Oregon Department of Forestry.

"Where the fire started, there was grass and oak," he said. "Then as it got up to the top of the hill there were conifers, Douglas fir, ponderosa pine and quite a lot of brush. It has heavy fuels for a forest fire, plus it's on a slope, so it moves pretty aggressively going up the hill."

ODF dispatched three helicopters and two air tankers to swoop down on the blaze as it climbed multiple slopes, puffing up a twisting mass of orange-brown smoke at its head and leaving smaller white columns of smoke in its wake. The plume was visible from across the valley and a spectacle to drivers on Interstate 5. Two air tankers in swift succession dropped florescent orange flame retardant on the blaze to keep it from swallowing a residential area in the 9000 and 10000 blocks of Blackwell Road. Meanwhile, Jackson County Fire District No. 3 responded on the ground.

More than 100 firefighters from various Southern Oregon fire departments and six bulldozers later joined the battle on the ground, Ballou said.

Jackson County sheriff's deputies notified residents to prepare for a possible evacuation.

"They told us it's a voluntary evacuation, but we're not leaving yet," said Ed Ramirez, as his 19-year-old stepson, Jason Yocham, hosed down their home in the 10000 block of Blackwell Road. "I've got too much money invested in here. If we're going to go, we want to give it everything we've got before we leave."

Ramirez recently began a worm-fertilizer business at the home, which was built by hand by his wife's uncle, Jimmy May.

"We love it here," Ramirez said. "Uncle Jimmy put his sweat and blood in these walls."

Pete and Connie Corweder, who also live in the 10000 block of Blackwell Road, packed up photos and irreplaceable heirlooms in their car after a sheriff's deputy told them to prepare for the worst. Pete Corweder said if they had to evacuate, they would have to leave behind their two vintage cars, a 1970 Torino Cobra and 1957 Ranchero. The couple stood in their front yard with Connie's father, 80-year-old Nicola Barente, who is visiting from Albany, N.Y., and watched a bright-orange flame lick the hillside behind their home while smoke blurred visibility of everything surrounding the fire. Their neighbors higher up on the hill already had evacuated.

"My father-in-law was just telling us it was boring around here," Pete Corweder quipped. "You have to be careful what you wish for."

An evacuation center has been set up at Community Bible Church, 500 N. 10th St. in Central Point, Ballou said.

It's unclear how many people evacuated the area. Andrea Carlson, public information officer for the Sheriff's Department, did not return phone calls asking for a confirmed number of fire refugees.

Roads were blocked off at Blackwell and intersections with Gold Ray Road, Kirtland Road, Foley Lane and Tolo Road, where an incident command center was set up at the Tolo Tavern. Residents were allowed to access the roads to reach their homes by showing a driver's license, Ballou said.

Just after 7 p.m., a pink and orange sunset had formed in the sky and shined from behind the massive plume of smoke on Blackwell Hill.

By late Sunday, the fire continued to creep south, but diminishing winds after dark had helped to slow its spread, Ballou said. Fire crews, including one called from the Oak Flat fire in the greater Grants Pass area, planned to try to establish fire lines throughout the night, Ballou said.

"The situation is looking better," he said late Sunday.

Reach reporter Paris Achen at 541-776-4459 or e-mail pachen@mailtribune.com.

An Oregon Department of Forestry air tanker drops fire retardant on a ridge off Blackwell Road in rural Central Point in an effort to control a large wildfire Sunday. - Bob Pennell