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'Nobody better'

When the fast-moving Oak Knoll fire jumped from a field of dry grass and weeds across Interstate 5, it began devouring a row of Ashland homes, sending thick plumes of black smoke into the air.

"Heavy, thick, dark, acrid smoke was rolling through the subdivision," Jackson County Fire District 5 Chief Darin Welburn said of the 2010 fire started by a mentally ill homeless man.

Firefighters from across the Rogue Valley raced to battle the blaze — including Medford Fire-Rescue Battalion Chief Mark Burns.

The fire was so large and dangerous, fire departments went beyond mutual-aid agreements and activated the next level, triggering what they call a task force of additional firefighters and engines. Known for his tactical skills during emergencies, Burns was sent toward the houses on fire.

"He was the task force leader for Medford and Central Point fire trucks that responded," said Medford Fire-Rescue Battalion Chief Tom McGowan. "Chief Burns was assigned to a group of homes off the freeway. In that subdivision, they got overrun with a tremendous amount of smoke from the structures and outbuildings on fire."

Burns moved his command post several times to try and avoid the smoke so he could keep the fire in view and place fire engines in key positions. But there was no way to stay out of the smoke, which was driven by the same wind pushing the fire forward.

"Homes were on fire. The amount of toxic material in that smoke is astronomical," McGowan said.

Burns, who needed to be able to give commands, drive, move and relocate quickly, was not wearing his self-contained breathing apparatus, which comes with a 40-pound air pack, McGowan said.

Firefighters usually wear breathing apparatuses when fighting a static house fire, but not when they are fighting moving fires like those that burn through fields and wildland, he said.

Working together on the ground and with helicopter water drops, firefighters were able to stop the fire on that hot, dry August day. The fire burned 11 houses, but firefighters, police and city of Ashland workers were able to evacuate the residents — resulting in no fatalities that day.

Burns finished his task as one of the commanders of the effort. But he was far from well.

Burns had suffered severe smoke inhalation.

"He was instantly sick the next day and he flat couldn't breathe," said his son, Trevis Burns.

Mark developed a lung abscess — a mass of liquified, dead lung tissue. Doctors tried to take a biopsy of the abscess, but his lung was in such bad condition the procedure turned into major surgery.

"They removed a substantial chunk of his lung," Trevis said.

Mark also was diagnosed with bronchiolitis obliterans. His small airway branches were so damaged and narrowed by inflammation and scarring that air could barely get in and out.

A man who was a licensed pilot, water skier, community volunteer and mentor and leader in the Southern Oregon firefighting community now couldn't walk 30 feet without having to stop and gasp for breath.

In early 2011, Mark had to take a medical retirement after 40 years as a firefighter.

"The Oak Knoll fire ruined his health. He ended up on oxygen 100 percent of the time and it was that way for years," Trevis said.

After years of suffering, Mark died on March 6 at age 62.

He is survived by his wife, Darcy Burns, as well as his son, daughter, mother, sister, brother and eight grandchildren.

"It leaves a huge hole in the heart now that he's gone," said his best friend Barry Hoffman, who served as operations chief for Jackson County Fire District 3. "He was unconscious on a respirator. I sat by his bedside and held his hand. He was just a true blue, honorable person. He was just an all around great guy. I loved him dearly."

During their firefighting careers, Hoffman and Mark Burns often teamed up to save the lives of residents and other firefighters. Many times, Hoffman put his own life in his best friend's hands.

Hoffman remembers rushing into a shed during a massive 1998 fire that burned Boise Cascade's largest plywood plant in the West. While Hoffman warned the firefighters they had to get out immediately because the shed was going up in flames, Burns was outside in radio contact watching to make sure the shed didn't collapse on those inside.

"Mark was a tactician. There was probably nobody better," Hoffman said.

During one wildland fire, the duo were working to evacuate people from homes. Hoffman tracked down a man driving a Caterpillar bulldozer who didn't want to leave his property — even though he was in danger of being overrun by the fire.

After arguing with the man, Hoffman finally got him to drive away to a safer location. Hoffman then found himself in trouble. Fortunately, he was in radio contact with Burns.

"The fire was jumping and spotting in front of me. I called Mark and told him I needed aerial support," Hoffman said. "Two minutes later, he got a helitanker to put out the spot fire so I could get out of there. Mark could make things happen."

Hoffman said Burns was a master at dealing with emergencies, whether they involved hazardous materials, extrication, structural fires or wildland fires.

"You knew when Mark got on the scene you would be OK," Hoffman said.

While Rogue Valley firefighters knew about Burns' contributions and his terminal illness from the Oak Knoll fire, the general public was not aware of his suffering.

But his sacrifice soon will be recognized statewide.

On May 25, the Oregon Fire Policy Committee unanimously determined Burns' death was caused by injuries he suffered in the line of duty while fighting the Oak Knoll fire.

His name will be added to the state's Fallen Fire Fighter Memorial Wall during a Sept. 15 ceremony.

"I'm very proud he's being honored because he deserves it," Trevis Burns said. "If he were still healthy, even today I'm 100 percent sure he would not have retired. He'd still be working. He spent a lot of years in Southern Oregon saving lives."

Staff reporter Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-776-4486 or valdous@mailtribune.com. Follow her at www.twitter.com/VickieAldous.

Trevis Burns holds a picture of his father, Mark Burns, who died March 6 from lung damage he received during the 2010 Oak Knoll fire in Ashland. Mark Burns will be honored in a state ceremony Sept. 15. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch
A firefighter battles through heavy smoke during the Oak Knoll fire in Ashland that burned 11 houses on Aug. 24, 2010. Mail Tribune file photo