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'The roar of a thousand freight trains'

Nothing is more predictable in Southern Oregon than summer fires. Most are small and quickly snuffed out, but some are sneaky, unnoticed and smolder until the time is right. Then, they leap from spark to fiery demon in mere minutes and, with a ravenous eye, turn their lethal rage against the forest.

Old-timers thought the summer of 1910 was just about as hot as the summer of 1883. They remembered the dry leaves and shriveling crops, and the air full of eye-irritating smoke and grayish ash clouds from mountain fires.

July 1910 was hot, but unlike 27 years earlier, the skies were clear, and though the "worst forest fires in history" were sweeping through the Northwest, Southern Oregon forests were untouched.

There had been some narrow escapes. A misguided patriot started a small blaze by throwing Fourth of July firecrackers from a train moving through Grants Pass, and there were flames near Peter Britt's hilltop home in Jacksonville, but, luckily, both were quickly doused by volunteers.

The bad fires began in August with a suspicious blaze in the Ashland watershed, followed by an arson fire in the fields surrounding Phoenix. All available men were drafted to set backfires and dig trenches, and that's when the worst began.

Discovered early in the summer and thought to have died away, a small fire near Fourbit Creek, east of Butte Falls, sprang back to life and within a day was a 1,000-acre inferno.

Sparks shot through the air and floated miles away, igniting new fires that spread and merged. Valuable timber was at stake. This was the Big Butte watershed, the source of Medford's water supply.

The army sent nearly 400 federal troops from Fort Lewis, Wash. District Ranger George Cecil asked the War Department to send the entire Oregon National Guard, but with too many fires already burning in Oregon, it was impossible.

That summer, in what was then known as the Crater Forest, 37 fires burned, and the biggest was the Cat Hill burn, a monster 25 miles wide and well on its way to devouring an estimated 800 million board feet of timber.

At the Skeeters Ranger Station, the wife of ranger John Holst and her four children found themselves surrounded by flames. Lucky for the family, she had a telephone and called Medford forest headquarters.

"For God's sake send us help!" she said. "The fire is so near, and there is no way out. Come and save my babies, I "…" and the line went dead. It is fortunate her husband returned just in time to save them.

"The roar of these fires was heard for miles," said a ranger. "It's like the noise of a thousand freight trains simultaneously crossing a thousand steel trestles."

The Cat Hill blaze spread with incredible velocity. It and its companions ate up nearly 61,000 acres. It took a month and nearly $1 million in today's money to kill it.

In the words of a Midwest newspaper editor, "The summer of 1910 must be put down as the blackest season in the annals of the forest districts of the Northwest."

Writer Bill Miller lives in Shady Cove. Reach him at newsmiller@yahoo.com.

'The roar of a thousand freight trains'