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'Two minutes to get out'

Unpredictable winds from the Oregon Gulch fire that roared to life July 31 near the Greensprings sent volunteer firefighters scurrying from huge plumes of hot ash and embers.

Just when they thought they’d reached safety, the winds shifted again and an Oregon Department of Forestry spotter plane pilot told them a wall of fire was heading right toward them.

“We were trying to fight this thing that was a monster, but it was an invisible monster,” recalls Gene Davies, fire chief for the Greensprings Rural Fire District. “We had two minutes to get out, or we wouldn’t be standing here.”

Davies and his volunteers were in the middle of what would become the worst fire to strike Southern Oregon this year. To date, the Oregon Gulch fire has consumed almost 37,000 acres, but is 35 percent contained with full containment expected next week.

“It caught me by surprise,” Davies says. “It was a pretty amazing and frightening experience to be in on the initial attack.”

The Greensprings firefighters had been spending days putting out small fires ignited by lightning last week. Many of the fires took five to eight hours to extinguish.

“We were up all night on those,” Davies says.

The Oregon Gulch fire was spotted July 30 by the Soda Mountain lookout, who saw a wisp of smoke to the east.

Firefighters chased the smoke, but it had disappeared by the time they arrived in the area.

“It had gone to sleep,” Davies says.

Then, at 11:30 a.m. Thursday, observers at Soda Mountain saw a column of smoke in the same area. Davies and his crew headed to the scene, which is about four miles south of Highway 66 near the Pinehurst Inn.

This time, they had no problem spotting it. The fire was raging through a forest of Ponderosa and Jeffrey pine. At the time, no structures were threatened. Firefighters attempted to flank the blaze, but winds were unpredictable and huge clouds of embers shot up into the air all around them.

“The winds shifted 90 degrees, and it made our location impractical and dangerous,” Davies says.

They retreated to the “heel” of the fire, the location where the blaze isn’t as hot.

Working along the flanks of the fire, they felt like they were making progress.

“All of a sudden, the wind did a 180-degree shift and started blowing strong out of the northwest right at us,” Davies says.

That’s when the spotter plane pilot noticed they were in the path of danger. After the pilot warned them by radio through the command center, the firefighters were ordered to evacuate from the advancing flames.

“I will be forever grateful for that thoughtful, competent work,” Davies says.

Eventually, the Oregon Department of Forestry brought in its own firefighters as acres of wilderness were being consumed, charring groves of Douglas fir and cedar in the higher elevations.

Davies says one of the problems with the fire was the numerous huge slash piles from logging operations that exploded throughout the landscape. Bulldozers have moved many of the slash piles out of the fire’s path, or created a fire line around the piles.

As the fire raged across through the forest, the Greensprings firefighters turned their attention to protecting structures. Four residences burned to the ground in the fire, along with outbuildings and vehicles whose windshields exploded, then melted, in the heat.

During the day and into the night, Davies and his crew fought the fire until they were exhausted. “I brought a sandwich, but a hose broke loose and it got soaked,” Davies remembers.

Later, a plane dropped fire retardant that has a reddish hue and irritates the skin.

Later that night, Robert Given, president of the Greensprings fire department, brought the firefighters food.

“I drove down this road with flames on both sides,” Given remembers. “To give you some idea of the intensity, it burned 10,000 acres the first day, then 10,000 acres in each of the next two days.”

They continued to fend off flames through the night, protecting a number of residences close to the California border. A tarp covering a deck was slightly burned and the land to the north and west was charred, but the houses were saved.

Along Highway 66, many signs offered thanks to the firefighters, who were aided recently by cooler weather and a break in thunderstorm activity. On Aug. 16, the Greensprings fire district will hold its annual West Coast Country Music Festival,  the proceeds from which will go to keep the volunteer department operational.

Davies says the Oregon Gulch fire will be remembered for a long time in this close-knit community.

“It’s the worst one I’ve ever seen,” he says.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or dmann@mailtribune.com Follow him at www.twitter.com/reporterdm.

Gene Davies, fire chief of the Greensprings Rural Fire District, walks through a stand of burned trees near the origin of the Oregon Gulch fire Wednesday. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch