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Residents wait out the fire

ASHLAND — Dottie Yockey’s three grandsons were working on a school lesson via Zoom when she saw the smoke billowing up from the valley below.

A neighbor sent the first notice to nearby homeowners to evacuate. Driving down Ashland Mine Road, Yockey passed structures ablaze. Helicopters dumped water on her neighbor’s house.

By 4 p.m. Tuesday, families and a few individuals were at Ashland Middle School, where the school district arranged a daytime evacuation center. About 15 people came through for supplies or services in the late afternoon, though most families departed when alternative options opened up, according to Ashland Community Hospital nurse Belinda Brown.

While some didn’t have homes under threat, road closures and blockages impeded their ability to get home and safe, Brown said.

After a fire sparked Tuesday close to the Quiet Village area of Ashland, homeowners hurriedly arranged go-bags, backup plans and watered property lines. A recommendation to evacuate the residential area lifted soon after implementation, but several residents said they received an early warning alert from the city, which informed their emergency planning.

At Ashland Middle School, Yockey’s grandsons stayed occupied on their phones waiting for pizza while she busied herself collecting branches that littered the lawn; blown down from severe wind.

Their vehicles held basic emergency bags and items retrieved from their log home. Two dogs accompanied them, but Yockey was forced to leave one cat that hid somewhere in the house during the chaos.

Since the 1980s, Yockey has prepared for fire danger, but the general disarray of this year added to her frustration about not being able to see what transpired around her house. A glimpse of the freeway with emergency vehicles passing, helicopters and an airplane flying overhead provided the most regular yet still intermittent updates.

“Fire scares me,” Yockey said, explaining a lengthy history of fire damage in the area since 1959.

Capacity at two evacuation centers arranged at Ashland Middle School and Ashland High School could easily serve 150 people, said Laurie Rooper, district human resources director, though she did not expect that many to show up Tuesday afternoon as the fire moved through Talent and Phoenix.

Rooper described the respite site effort as “community helping community” using district funding, with physical space and food services for those who needed it. Crates of water, COVID-19 screening materials and hand sanitizer was ready on tables at both sites.

Ashland High Principal Benjamin Bell helped coordinate resources to Ashland Middle School as a central evacuee site in the early afternoon. If one site reached capacity, the other could reopen, Brown said.

By 5 p.m. Tuesday, evacuation Level 3 was implemented south of Barnett Road on Highway 99 in Medford and south of Campbell Road in the North Phoenix area. All of Jackson County remained at Level 1.

For residents like Yockey, Tuesday ended with a degree of uncertainty not uncommon for families living through 2020 — where they would sleep, what would be left when they return home and how the community as a whole responded to another sudden threat.

Blake and Nathan Yockey wait Tuesday with their dog Lily for their dad to deliver a pizza at the Ashland Middle School evacuation center. Allayana Darrow / Ashland Tidings