What now? Ashland emergency managers grapple with scale of crisis
Reeling from the eruption of the multi-community Almeda fire, Ashland community members wondering “What’s next?” have turned to leaders and emergency managers for answers.
Ashland Mayor John Stromberg and City Councilor Dennis Slattery urged Ashlanders to shelter in place, avoid creating more road traffic and reach out to friends, as everyone is affected by the incident, directly or indirectly.
Since Tuesday night, the Oregon State Fire Marshal’s office has led the incident command unit, to which three county-level fire branches report, according to Ashland Interim City Administrator Adam Hanks. The Oregon Department of Transportation controls traffic and exit closures on Interstate 5 and Highway 99.
“We aren’t putting as much information out because it doesn’t apply to city of Ashland residents,” Hanks said. “What we’re doing is trying to repost and be a facilitator of information from the source. This is well beyond a city fire at this point.”
Hanks cautioned that information can quickly become outdated or inaccurate in a dynamic situation. For now, his priorities for the city include maintaining communication with the Jackson County emergency operations center and providing resources for other parts of the Rogue Valley — including police coverage, traffic control, shelter and other support services.
“We came out of this far less impacted than our neighboring communities,” he said.
Nauvoo Mobile Estate residents RaShelle and Joseph Bomba grabbed their cats, leaving everything else behind, when city officials came through to notify them to evacuate immediately around 10 a.m. Tuesday. From her porch, RaShelle Bomba watched flames whip less than 500 feet from her home of 13 years.
“We expected to come home to ashes,” Joseph Bomba said.
Listening to vehicles roll through the mobile home park with loudspeakers alerting residents to leave immediately, Joseph Bomba described the moment as “very frightening.”
The couple evacuated to a Super 8 in Central Point before that site also became threatened by fire, and they drove between a grocery store parking lot and eventually back to their home in Ashland as fires moved north. Flaming structures lined Highway 99 on both sides of their route.
Despite the alarming event, police and fire staff handled the chaos with kindness, calm, courtesy and clarity, the couple recalled, sitting on their untouched front porch Wednesday looking out over a scorched field.
RaShelle Bomba expressed her gratitude to have both her animals and partner safe and sound by her side, while many were not so fortunate. With the power still out, the couple remained on high alert to evacuate again if wind conditions continue to challenge fire management.
To be most helpful, Ashland residents can avoid travel, keep regional roads clear, take care of their own social circles and be prepared, Hanks said. He urged residents to stay apprised of evacuation levels via county social media accounts and websites — and to verify the age and validity of information before spreading it. For residents who sign up, the city’s initial alert system provides the most immediate emergency notifications and advisories available, he said.
As the fire burned north and sparks ignited new fires Wednesday, the implications of the event continued to grow.
“Even though the waters are calmer here on the Ashland side of town, this is a unified incident and so, we can’t really take a step back and work on a lot of next steps until this incident has been grappled with as a whole,” said Ashland public information officer Katie Gibble.
The next steps include aiding evacuees with returning to their homes — whether standing or burned — while navigating road closures and active fires. The number of homes lost is estimated in the mid to high hundreds. An estimate of displaced people, including homeless individuals, has yet to be tallied as the fire remains evolving, she said.
When appropriate, the city intends to work with national partner communities that have dealt with devastating fires before to elicit guidance on recovery, she said.
After receiving a call from a Talent resident inquiring about what it takes to get past roadblocks and survey their property, Gibble said, “We’re actively trying to find the right answer for that right now.”
Flames smoldered in vegetation and along fence posts lining roadways north out of Ashland Wednesday — weather conditions, landscape materials, vehicles and potentially live gas lines elevating the risk for more multi-acre fires within the burn scar.
While some people resisted initial evacuation orders, Gibble advised that evacuation alerts protect residents, neighbors and first responders. Delaying evacuation poses increased risk of blocking emergency response vehicles and endangers others, she said.
Ashland Police Department resources have generally returned to the city, but fire resources move with incident command wherever directed, whether on a spot fire in the Ashland area or major blaze near Grants Pass.
“This is burning across entire communities,” Gibble said. “Coming together around one incident as different communities has been a challenge, but one that incident command is prepared to step up and accomplish.”