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'Too much heat, too much wind, not enough water, not enough resources'

A luncheon Tuesday at Jackson County Fire District No. 5 was the first time many firefighters who worked the Almeda fire Sept. 8 had come together since incident meetings. For many, some memories resurface sporadically, while others stick in the mind.

Ashland fire Chief David Shepherd and District 5 Chief Charles Hanley independently said efforts were being made to provide mental health resources and stability for firefighters and city employees who witnessed a “career event.”

Wildland firefighter Neil Clooney covered someone else’s shift Sept. 8. By 7 p.m., his engine crew was deployed on Talent Avenue, a wall of fire approaching two rows of standing houses. Their objective: Don’t let the fire cross the road.

They drove back and forth along the avenue for 15 hours, putting out spot fires along the way, including flames surrounding the Camelot Theatre, which still stands as a result of their efforts.

“It was good management and a stroke of luck,” Clooney said. “We had both.”

His most poignant memory comes from the morning after a long night of battling fire, when road barriers had not yet been established and some residents returned to assess damage to their homes.

A woman near full-term pregnancy stepped out of her car and broke down in tears near where her house — which had been set up for the new baby — formerly stood. With three kids himself, Clooney said watching her hard work turn to ash was heartbreaking.

Even as people thank him for his service, Clooney said the “hero tag” is difficult to accept. With such intense fire and wind, fire crews saved much of the valley. However, looking around at what they couldn’t save leaves him feeling defeated.

Still, incident commanders are quick to highlight the dedicated and coordinated work exhibited by each human resource on the fire that day.

At 9 a.m. Sept. 8, Shepherd sat in on a multi-agency Zoom call, during which he learned high winds would continue throughout the day, with high temperatures and low humidity heightening the threat to the parched environment. Because of other fires burning throughout the state, the Rogue Valley stood alone against any new fire starts.

Two hours later, Shepherd began a 30-hour shift on the Almeda fire.

“Too much heat, too much wind, not enough water, not enough resources,” he summarized.

Requests through the governor’s office for additional resources yielded five state incident management team members, compared to a typical 40-person assistance team. Five engines came from the Portland area, instead of the 50 or so Shepherd would expect to receive from around the state during a devastating fire event. Had wind blown the fire toward Ashland, water resources and sturdy vegetation management may have lessened structure losses, but resource numbers would have been the same.

Instead, as the fire burned north, Shepherd established Talent Avenue as the defense line to hold, despite each challenge crews battled through the night.

Shepherd positioned engines to initiate “anchor and hold” — connecting engines to fire hydrants to flow water from master streams — yet no water flowed. As the team checked hydrants along Talent Avenue, no water could be found in the system.

Ashland and Talent public works administrators coordinated to find out the reason, and Shepherd was later notified the gravity-fed Talent water system was tapped dry. Crews would need to continue filling from Ashland.

“I made the tough decision that we would not try and fight any fire on the north side of Talent Avenue,” with the exception of the Camelot Theatre, Shepherd wrote in a narrative of his experience. “We simply did not have the water we would need to combat the BTUs coming off the already burning structures.”

In addition to water demand from fire crews over a large area, fallen structures exposed flowing pipes wasting water into the soil. Phoenix and Medford encountered variations of the same problem: no water or low-pressure water.

Even as Plan A dissolved and ember storms burst out of a growing inferno, they held a line at Talent Avenue. If the blaze breached the road, several neighborhoods would fall like dominoes.

Firefighters wetted down areas and extinguished brush fires surrounding residences before another ember would float over and undo all their work, Shepherd recalled. At 11 p.m., a water tender caught fire, likely from embers pulled into the air filter.

Wind was the enemy. Trees and bushes acted as wicks for houses burning like candles, lighting others around them.

Embers lit bark, plants, trees and buildings as firefighters battled to hold the line. The wind never let up or shifted direction, as they hoped.

Without discounting the value of the lives lost in the episode, Shepherd said it is remarkable more didn’t die.

“As I am retiring in six weeks, this fire will be the pinnacle of my 25-year career,” Shepherd wrote in his account. “I will walk away from this job with vivid images of mass destruction, but I will also carry the images of our brave men and women giving everything they had for the communities they have sworn to protect.”

With another 10 engines, four more aircraft and a working water supply, perhaps crews could have shifted to an offensive approach on the fire.

Landscaping offers privacy from neighbors and is a staple of Southern Oregon communities, but it was disastrous for fire spread, Shepherd said. Managing vegetation and municipal fuel quantities will be top priorities in conversations going forward.

Mail Tribune file photo