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Ashland’s fire was a nightmare

With humidity barely 10 percent, possible lightning storms in the forecast, and for the fourth straight day temperatures searing the valley at more than 100 degrees, what else could it be but fire weather?

Yet, on this Saturday, Aug. 8, 1959, it wasn’t lightning that sparked the inferno; but rather two malicious men — or perhaps just two stupid boys playing with matches — who did the deed. No arsonist would ever go to trial.

But two fires were deliberately set, one near the Jackson Hot Springs, north of Ashland, the other higher up on Ashland Mine Road. Both quickly merged just after 1:00 in the afternoon. Fanned by a brisk, southerly wind, the fire roared to life, racing off toward town.

Fire lookouts saw the blaze and called out fire crews and firefighting airplanes loaded with borate salts, an early fire-suppressant, now banned because it sterilized the soil and killed some animals.

Three hours later, 300 acres were burning, and the fire, totally out of control, was gaining speed. Then, almost exactly at 5 p.m., it blew up, burning 1,000 acres more in just the next hour. Flames leaped and twisted hundreds of feet into the air. In downtown Ashland, residents heard a snapping, crackling and wind-like roar — the sounds of trees and brush instantly incinerated.

By 8 p.m., at least 2,000 acres were ablaze. The fire was climbing into the Ashland watershed and racing toward the edge of Lithia Park. Cinders showered down in all directions, igniting other small fires that quickly merged into the scorching assault.

At sunset, the fire’s glow was visible as far as Montague, California. In Medford, those who gathered in the streets to watch were awed by the billowing salmon-colored clouds that reached so high they wore a crown of snow-white from the reflected sunlight.

In the Shakespeare Festival’s new Elizabethan Theater that had premiered just 12 evenings earlier, the fire’s glow flared and flickered on the hillsides off to the left of the nervous audience. The supplemental stage lighting combined with light smoke gave a unique atmosphere to the festival’s presentation of “Antony and Cleopatra.”

As the Bard’s tragedy neared its end, actress Barbara Waide, in the title role, spoke Cleopatra’s dying words with an unintended relevancy.

“I am fire and air; my other elements I give to baser life.”

A massive and rapid response had quickly formed. More than 500 state and local firefighters worked through the night on the fire line. Jackson County sent bulldozers and road crews. The local National Guard unit supplied four trucks and six drivers. Medford Fire sent a pumper to the blaze, and Ashland deployed its five engines. The fire bombers dropped 15 loads of retardant on that first day before thick smoke and poor visibility forced them to land.

Miraculously, by the next day, the fire was contained and mop-up activity over the next few days would quickly end Ashland’s nightmare. It had been a very narrow escape, but the city was saved.

True, more than 4,000 acres were an ashen desert of gray dust, yet only one building was destroyed and no one had died. Surely, no one could ask for anything more than that.

Writer Bill Miller is the author of “History Snoopin’,”a collection of his previous history columns and stories. Reach him at newsmiller@live.com.