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2020 Hindsight: Preventing another Almeda fire

Editor's note: This is the first of an eight-part series looking back at what lessons can be taken from the tumultuous year of 2020.

Adequate preparation for another destructive fire on the same scale as September’s Almeda blaze will require a multi-pronged approach, with a key focus on having more personnel and resources at the ready, Jackson County Fire District 5 Chief Charles Hanley said.

“We emptied every fire station in Jackson County,” Hanley said of the Almeda fire, which left three dead and destroyed about 2,500 homes and 170 businesses, primarily in Phoenix and Talent. “Without at least a doubling of the existing resources, a doubling of the on-duty strength, this could happen again.”

It almost did happen in September 2009. On a warm, dry day, a wildfire ignited at the south end of Ashland.

Dubbed the Siskiyou fire, it burned less than 200 acres and destroyed a home. But given the weather conditions — ones similar to the day the Almeda fire broke out — it could have been much worse, Ashland Fire & Rescue forestry division chief Chris Chambers said. It had all the necessary components: flames as high as 150 feet and fierce winds that spurred them onward.

“(It was) a fire that could have burned through hundreds and hundreds of homes,” he said.

The Almeda fire broke out just after 11 a.m. Sept. 8 at the north end of Ashland, with crews initially responding to a fire report in the 100 block of Almeda Drive. Propelled by vicious winds, the fire surged north up the Bear Creek Greenway and Highway 99 corridor.

A notable difference between the Siskiyou and Almeda blazes was apparatus and personnel on hand to fight the flames, Chambers said.

“It’s that resources were available,” Chambers said of the Siskiyou fire. “We had five air tankers, six helicopters, basically all the resources we could want. It was a vastly different outcome.”

The Almeda fire, by contrast, was one of dozens that ignited across the state — the numerous incidents, including several mega fires at the north end of Oregon, stretching resources to the limit and beyond.

“We even tried to pull Cal Fire out of Northern California. There were no resources to be had anywhere,” Chambers said. “There just wasn’t anybody else to help.”

An inadequate water supply made for another hindrance for crews, due to increased system demands and a loss of pressure as structures fell and left pipes exposed. Southwest Oregon’s South Obenchain and Slater and Devil fires hampered resource availability even further, as state and federal forestry crews had been primarily focused on both sites.

“It’s something that we think about all the time. Things kept coming at us,” said Natalie Weber, public information officer for the Oregon Department of Forestry’s Southwest Division.

The South Obenchain fire, which ignited Sept. 8 near Eagle Point, burned 32,671 acres and destroyed 33 homes and 56 other structures such as outbuildings, officials said. The Slater and Devil fires led to the deaths of two people, destroyed 197 homes and burned a collective 157,270 acres in southern Josephine County and Northern California, according to the Incident Information System, a federal wildfire resource website.

When 2020’s fire season on ODF-protected lands wrapped in early November, 190 days had transpired since its May 1 start date, the second-longest season on record for ODF Southwest. Only three years had seen earlier start dates, all falling in April. ODF, which covers 1.8 million acres of public and private land in Jackson and Josephine counties, responded to 220 wildfires that totaled about 40,494 acres during the 2020 season.

The Almeda fire’s official cause remains under investigation. The day after it broke out, fire and law enforcement officials had to cut a press conference short when they responded to another fire near the Table Rock overpass. That fire shot up a thick smoke column visible from across town. It prompted immediate evacuations while an attack from the air and ground got underway.

“That is a real challenge when faced with weather conditions like we saw that week,” Fire District 3 Chief Robert Horton said in an email. “A small fire, that would otherwise stay a small fire in less hazardous conditions, can turn into a catastrophic event in the time it would take to get the first engine on scene. Fortunately for that fire, ODF had air attack resources to couple with the with the ground unit response.”

Increasing the “weight of attack” on such incidents isn’t the only necessity, Hanley said, adding improving the ability of municipal departments to fight fires in state and federal forest areas would also be a sizable benefit. Essentially, whoever is closest would get dispatched first, similar to mutual aid agreements among Rogue Valley departments.

“We can do it, but in terms of reimbursement, it’s problematic, it’s not automatic. That keeps barriers up,” Hanley said. “Forestry crews fight forest fires, structural crews fight structure fires. They cross over, but there is some artificiality there.”

Such a process would also need to include a seamless backup dispatched to stations where units had responded. Additional, quick-to-use water supplies also need to be part of the war chest, he added.

A year-round focus on local hazardous fuels reduction also continues to be paramount for fire season preparation, officials said. A more macro variety of such preparation would include buffer zones, or breaks between Jackson County communities, said Medford Fire-Rescue deputy operations chief Bryan Baumgartner.

“(They) become a potential area for fire spread ... if they are not managed,” Baumgartner said. “Those things have been in play, they’re just not on a large scale.”

Individual homes and neighborhoods need to receive similar treatment, Chambers said. This includes methods such as creating fuel breaks around structures, making sure rain gutters and other potential entry points where embers can drift in and ignite are cleaned and, in appropriate cases, screened off. When rebuilding commences, fire-resistant building materials should be a key consideration, Chambers said.

Risk management is not something that can be a patchwork effort either, Horton said. All communities need to be on the same page.

“The Greenway is the highest risk area for a devastating fire as identified through our data analytics. The conditions are ripe for rapid fire spread, exacerbated by an abundance of human caused fires and limited access,” Horton said. “While there are many communities in the Rogue Valley that have ordinances that manage hazardous fuels, that is not the case everywhere in our region. At the local level, we can only be as safe as our neighbors. What that means is that if your house has taken the appropriate safety measures to include defensible space, but the homes around you have not, the probability of losing your home increases. We have to look at risk reduction at the county and regional level.”

Individual preparedness continues to be a core tenet of fire safety, too, Chambers added, with families well-rehearsed in their own evacuation plans and necessities packed.

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