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Local fallen firefighter to be honored nationally

A local firefighter who suffered permanent lung damage and later died after battling a fast-moving Ashland fire in 2010 will have his name added to the National Fallen Firefighters Monument in Maryland.

Medford Fire-Rescue Battalion Chief Mark Burns faced thick, toxic smoke pouring off a fire that started in a dry field, jumped I-5 and destroyed 11 homes in Ashland’s Oak Knoll neighborhood.

The National Fallen Firefighters Foundation will recognize Burns during a memorial service in October. Medford Fire-Rescue personnel also donated a brick in honor of Burns and his family that will be placed in the Walk of Honor.

Burns’ family, friends and his fire family will attend the national ceremony, fire officials said.

In 2010, firefighters from throughout the Rogue Valley raced to help Ashland Fire and Rescue fight the Oak Knoll fire burning on a windy August day.

Once he arrived on scene, Burns was put in charge of a division downwind from the fire. Several homes within his attack area were engulfed in flames, fire officials said.

Burns was exposed to smoke while he coordinated and assigned incoming resources, resulting in damage to his lungs and airways, officials said.

“I had the honor of working with Mark for most of my career in the fire service. He was a great mentor to me. I haven’t worked for a better fire strategist and tactician — ever,” said Medford Fire-Rescue Chief Brian Fish, who has three decades of experience in firefighting. “The best part for me was that we became very good friends. I miss him.”

Firefighters stopped the Oak Knoll fire, saving roughly 100 nearby homes. The fire left behind an eerie landscape, with houses on one side of the street leveled, and houses on the other side of the street still standing.

Although no one died during the fire, the damage to Burns’ lungs was irreversible.

“It was one of the quickest-moving fires I have witnessed in person throughout my career in Oregon,” said Medford Fire-Rescue Battalion Chief Tom McGowan. “The fire was spreading from home to home within minutes, and pulled resources from all over Southern Oregon to make the stop. Knowing that so many of us were on a fire that led to a fatality really highlights how quickly an incident can change from calm to chaos.”

Burns tried to return to work, but his respiratory problems were too severe in the months following the fire. He took time off in hopes of recovering but soon needed surgery to remove an abscess from his lung. With a portion of his lung removed, Burns could no longer pass the firefighter physical, fire officials said.

In 2011, Burns took a medical retirement.

It was the end of a career that spanned four decades in the Rogue Valley, starting in 1971 when he was hired as a firefighter by Jackson County Fire District No. 3. He shifted to Medford Fire-Rescue in 1982, where he served as an operations chief and battalion chief, fire officials said.

Burns was placed on a lung transplant list and was forced to remain on oxygen until his death in March 2016, officials said.

The state of Oregon honored Burns in September 2016 by adding his name to the state’s Fallen Firefighters Memorial at the Oregon Department of Public Safety Standards and Training facility in Salem.

The Oak Knoll fire was likely started by John David Thiry, a mentally ill homeless man with a history of dangerous and menacing behavior in Ashland.

Thiry was accused of flicking a cigarette into a field of dry, overgrown weeds and grass.

The day after the fire, Thiry was charged with 10 counts of recklessly endangering another person and 14 counts of reckless burning for the danger he created for neighbors and the damage caused to their property.

In December 2010, a judge found Thiry not guilty of all the charges, saying Thiry was not aware of the danger of his actions because of mental illness.

Tighe O’Meara, who has since been promoted to chief of the Ashland Police Department, and a probation officer petitioned to have Thiry committed to a mental institution. Their effort failed after a judge said the case didn’t meet the legal threshold for commitment.

After Burns passed away in 2016, friends and family members said Burns wasn’t the kind of person who would want Thiry to be prosecuted for causing his death. A family member did favor having Thiry committed to a mental institution.

Thiry’s mental and physical health continued to deteriorate until he died in 2017. He had been exposed to the elements for years and eventually began refusing to eat, according to people who watched helplessly as he wasted away on the streets.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.

Medford Fire-Rescue Battalion Chief Mark Burns, who passed away in 2016 due to lung damage from smoke inhalation, will have his name added to the National Fallen Firefighters Monument in Maryland. Submitted photo.