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'I've got to go rescue my family'

Jason Houk was on the air for KSKQ radio, reporting on an Ashland wildfire, when he realized the flames were advancing toward his home in the Bear Creek Mobile Home Park.

He had just finished breaking down a much smaller fire in Central Point, then received a notification from the city of Ashland about another one burning at the other end of the Rogue Valley, one that was creeping close to where he lived.

“I just said, ‘OK, I’ve got to get off the air and go rescue my family,’” Houk said.

He left the station and headed toward home, but he was able to get only as far as the Burger King off Valley View Road. Further access was blocked, the fire was already inside the park.

Houk had been on the phone with his wife, Vanessa, with her relaying updates as the fire, called the Almeda fire, burned. Tuesday was the first day of high school remote learning, and she was home with one of their daughters. The flames burned into the park, and there was some initial confusion about where to go, but sheriff’s deputies and firefighters helped residents evacuate.

The Houks are organizers for Southern Oregon Jobs with Justice, a community-wide effort to help Ashland’s homeless gain access to food, shelter, bathroom facilities and electricity at a time when many, due to skyrocketing unemployment, are losing the means to give.

Firefighters responded to the Almeda fire at 11:05 a.m., first reported in the 100 block of Almeda Drive, according to dispatch records. By about 3:30 p.m., the fire had grown to more than 1,000 acres, according to the Oregon Department of Forestry’s Southwest Division Facebook page.

“It is burning in the city, on both sides of Interstate 5, and along the bike path,” the post said.

Multiple structures burned down or were damaged, though exact numbers were not immediately available Tuesday. The blaze prompted numerous evacuations outside Ashland as it burned toward Talent, Phoenix and beyond, according to the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office. Houses were evacuated in Talent along Talent Avenue, Mountain View Estates and Suncrest Road. The Expo, Ashland Middle School and Southern Oregon University opened as shelters for the displaced.

Much of southwest Oregon, including Jackson County, remains under a red flag warning until 5 p.m. Wednesday because of dry conditions, heat and strong winds.

Officials from multiple agencies responded to the blaze, including the Oregon Department of Forestry, Ashland Fire & Rescue, Jackson County Fire District No. 5, Medford Fire-Rescue and the Grants Pass Department of Public Safety. All lanes of I-5 were closed between exit 35 and 14, according to ODOT spokesman Gary Leaming. On Highway 99, southbound lanes were closed at milepost 17, about 2 miles south of Talent.

“Drivers urged to exit interstate and seek local services in the Medford/Central Point area until fire conditions improve and the interstate reopens,” an ODOT bulletin said. “We have no estimated time for reopening.”

At 5 p.m., the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office warned Phoenix residents to evacuate.

“The Jackson County Sheriff’s Office is issuing an immediate evacuation notice for all businesses and residents in the Phoenix area due to wildfire. The evacuation includes including all properties between I-5, north to Voorhees Road, west to Coleman and south to Pioneer and Culver Road,” the update said.

All of Jackson County was under a Level 1 evacuation warning, with Level 2 for areas south of Barnett Road.

“We were really hoping the fire would skirt around the mobile home park, but once it started really burning in the park, they evacuated,” Houk said. “Once they made the decision to evacuate, they were safe pretty quick. Within a matter of minutes they had them out of the park and on the freeway toward the Expo.”

Houk fears the worst for his two pet ferrets and three cats, which were unaccounted for Tuesday afternoon.

“I’m just having to compartmentalize things right now,” he said. “You just focus in on the moment. When I stop for a second, thinking of our pets and thinking about the trauma the kids and the family went through, it really starts to affect me.”

“This was a terrible day for Ashland and a terrible day for our community,” he added.

Reach Mail Tribune web editor Ryan Pfeil at 541-776-4468 or rpfeil@rosebudmedia.com.

Jamie Lusch / Mail TribuneThe Almeda fire burns through Phoenix on Tuesday afternoon.