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Klamathon fire victims return to devastation; cost of fighting fire reaches $25.8M

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Ken and Dolores Callahan were the lucky ones.

When the elderly couple evacuated July 5 as the Klamathon fire swept through Hornbrook and raged 60 feet from their front porch, they expected to be homeless when they returned.

“We just knew Thursday night that our house was gone,” she said.

The fire engulfed their neighbor’s house and blackened the fields all around them, but their pastor contacted them Friday and told them their house was untouched.

“At first you think you’re part of the group that lost everything, then you find out you’ve been spared,” said Dolores, 85. “The fire was just unreal.”

The Klamathon fire is very real for many residents who are coming to terms with significant losses to houses and belongings from the worst fire in recent history for this rural town just south of the Oregon border. One resident, 72-year-old John Karl Bermel, died after being overcome by flames while packing up his truck the day the fire started.

Cal Fire officials say the cost of fighting the fire reached $25.78 million as of Friday. A total of 82 structures, including 34 single-family residences and one apartment, have been destroyed; many of them could be viewed from the Callahans’ front porch, including three outbuildings they owned and a pickup truck.

The good news is that Cal Fire expects to contain the Klamathon fire, which has ripped through 36,500 acres, by Sunday.

The bad news is that many of houses that were spared are without electricity, water or phones, forcing residents to get creative. Fire crews ran an extension cord from the Callahans’ RV to power a fan on their front porch. A neighbor brought over a mister for Ken, who is 93.

Hornbrook Volunteer Fire Chief Colton Bear worked to get electrical wires ready once a new meter box was installed at the Callahans’ house and power was restored. He used string to cut through plastic conduit to avoid cutting the electrical wires inside. Telephone poles and wires also were downed or melted during the fire.

“I’ve been running around the district, bringing water to the elderly people,” he said. “We’ve got Pacific Power out here helping bring water, as well.”

The fire destroyed a pump that provides water to the town, and when a new one was installed, it was discovered the water had been contaminated, Bear said. As a result, officials are warning people not to drink the water or bathe in it.

“My house is one of those that doesn’t have water,” he said.

On both sides of Oregon Street, near the Chevron at the Hornbrook exit, it looks like a war zone.

House after house is destroyed, and vehicles are the color of ash, their tires melted from the heat.

The local cemetery appeared to escape the flames, but a house next door was destroyed, with children’s toys and a teddy bear in the yard largely untouched.

“Some of the residents are coming home, and they’re out there with rakes and shovels trying to find what valuables they have left,” Bear said. “I’m just out trying to help the neighbors.”

Looking down at the carcass of a snake on the ground, he pointed to a nearby field that was charred.

“A baby fawn must have gotten away from its mother,” he said. “It was barbecued.”

His 83-year-old grandfather, Leonard Bear, said it was the worst fire he’d seen after living in Hornbrook since 1955.

Like his grandson, Leonard Bear was out helping neighbors. When the fire raged, he helped bulldoze a line to prevent the blaze from spreading.

“I had good vision in the other eye until I fought this fire,” he said.

The Callahans were happy to see neighbors pitching in as they sat on their front porch, which became something of a community gathering place Friday.

Despite the lack of running water, the couple seemed in good spirits, with Ken pointing out he’d just mowed his yard before the fire struck.

“We are bedraggled,” Dolores said.

They both seemed surprised that their house was still standing while everything around them was blackened.

“We know God spared our house,” she said.

After a week of smoke, Hornbrook had clear skies Friday. From Interstate 5, smoke was no longer visible from Hilt to Hornbrook.

Gabe Lauderdale, spokesman for the Klamathon fire, said it was 80 percent contained Friday morning, with crews strengthening lines and mopping up hotspots.

He said weather, particularly the lack of wind, has helped crews gain the upper hand, though he cautioned things could change quickly, particularly along the Oregon border where access is more difficult.

Lauderdale said California has a robust mutual aid system that helps bring in firefighters quickly and provides rapid incident command stations to coordinate the efforts.

At the same time, local fire crews are crucial because they have a better idea about topography, roads and prevailing winds, he said.

Lauderdale said Cal Fire will make sure that containment lines are strengthened and hot spots are tamped down before turning the fire back to local fire crews.

“We put out anything smoldering or hot quite a distance in from containment lines,” Lauderdale said.

At the peak of battling the blaze, there were 2,798 firefighters on the Klamathon, but that had drawn down to 1,915 Friday.

One of the biggest cost drivers in a wildland fire is the air tankers.

Lauderdale said it costs $250,000 to dump one load of retardant, which colored nearby Horn Peak orange.

The retardant helps cool down an advancing fire so fire crews can establish lines to prevent it from spreading, he said. Retardant is used judiciously because of the cost, but also because it only can be applied in the right weather conditions and during the day, for the safety of the flight crew.

Air tankers weren’t needed for the past couple of days as fire crews gained the upper hand.

“All our containment lines are tied together,” Lauderdale said. “Now we’re going to make sure they’re plenty strong. Some areas are going to widen.”

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


Klamathon fire took a toll

  • One person died
  • 36,500-acres burned from Hornbrook to the Oregon border
  • Total cost as of Friday: $25,772,040
  • Total structures lost: 82
  • Single family residences destroyed: 34
  • Multiple family residence destroyed: 1
  • $250,000 to drop one air tanker of retardant.
  • 2,800 firefighters at the peak, down to 1,915 Friday
  • 80-percent contained Friday
  • Full containment expected Sunday
  • Started July 5; cause undetermined

— Source: CAL FIRE

Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune Ken and Dolores Callahan lost their barn and truck to the Klamathon fire.
Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune Ken, 93, and Dolores Callahan, 85, talk about what happened during the Klamathon fire.