‘We gave everything we had’
They fought within a 360-degree orange glow, because they were surrounded by fire most of the day and night; breathing soot that couldn’t be spat up or blown out; those heavy blast-furnace wind gusts; the sporadic, “terrifying” bam-bam-bam detonations of propane tanks, bullets and cars loaded with gasoline; a fire chief’s speech to a hundred “beat up, hungry” firefighters pleading for just a little more; and perhaps above all, the desperate struggle between duty and exhaustion, whose final score could be etched on the back of the man who dozed off while white-knuckling a 2½-inch-diameter, 500-gallon-per-minute fire hose.
The Almeda fire left its mark on everyone and everything in its path one year ago today, on Sept. 8, 2020, but for those who fought it and were hailed as heroes in the days and weeks that followed, the memory of that day is more intimate, and the emotions surrounding its aftermath more complicated.
Jackson County Fire District No. 5 engineer Curtis Ulrich, Ashland Fire and Rescue firefighter and paramedic Tim Hegdahl and Medford Fire Department Station No. 3 Captain Jon Peterson each was called into action to battle the Almeda fire. A year later, their memories of the experience tell three versions of the same story in visceral detail, with a common theme that would have been out of place in the official Jackson County Fire Incidents After Action report, but no less true.
“We’ve had lots of meetings … where we’ve talked about it and we’ve said, ‘Hey, listen, we did what we could do with the resources that we had,’” Ulrich said. “It was super hot, It was super dry, it was super windy. You could have had all the resources you wanted to have or thought maybe you needed and you most likely couldn’t have stopped it then, either.
“‘But fellas, you did everything you could do. Thank you for what you did.’ But, we didn’t stop it still. And so your mind tries to keep telling you that you didn’t do it right.”
“In my head, I know how fast that fire moved through those communities and how chaotic the evacuation was just because of time,” Hegdahl said. “My brain’s thinking that the loss of life was higher, but even the three fatalities that we experienced, my brain’s thinking, OK, in the moment that those people needed me, where was I?”
It was about 11 a.m. on the second day of Ulrich’s usual 48-hour shift when he was called out to a grass fire by the wastewater treatment plant behind Almeda Drive in northeast Ashland. He was grateful for a relatively good night’s sleep but things got busy in a hurry starting at 6 a.m. as public service calls related to the high winds — mostly fallen trees and downed power lines — demanded his attention.
Ulrich estimates that the grass field where the Almeda fire probably originated was adjacent to a 5-acre plot devoid of trees or shrubs, but with sustained winds of 30 to 40 mph, dry grass alone provided more than enough fuel to push the fire out of reach of that initial response.
Ulrich said he and the rest of his crew knew the moment they got the call it had the potential to be very, very bad news for that section of town. By the time they arrived about seven minutes later, the field was already history and reports of structure fires were blowing up the radio.
“So, basically, this grass field was behind all these peoples’ homes, and all of us in the Rogue Valley for the most part have these nice cedar fences. Well, those things have been sitting and baking in the sun for the last 25 years, and as soon as a fire hits it, it’s game on.”
Multiple Fire District 5 and Ashland Fire Department engines went to work immediately spraying the homes that were hit during that initial surge and succeeded in saving five to seven, said Ulrich. But after the fire tore through the field it hit the wide-open Bear Creek Greenway and was off to the races, powered by a heavy fuel load of bushes, downed trees and timber, all extremely dry.
Looking back, Ulrich said he doesn’t believe at the time he expected the fire to seriously threaten Talent and Phoenix because he couldn’t fathom it skipping across so many roads that could be used as fire lines. The wind changed the rules, though, and firefighters had to scramble just to keep up with the fire’s pace for the rest of the day.
Not long after Ulrich arrived at the blackened field, Hegdahl was doing some backyard work outside his home in Phoenix when his daughter came out to tell him she couldn’t watch TV because the power was out. Hegdahl went inside, pulled open his blinds, looked out his east-facing front window and saw a large column of smoke headed his way. Minutes later, he was stuck in traffic on Highway 99 trying to get to work. He eventually reported to Station 1 along with four more off-duty firefighters, and together they were deployed to various hot spots along Eagle Mill Road, South Valley View Road and East Valley View Road.
It didn’t take Hegdahl long to realize what Ulrich had already discovered — the fire was almost impossible to keep up with, let alone cut off. Hegdahl was in the caravan of engines sent out to a subdivision on Willow Springs Drive. One house was already burning when they arrived, so their strategy was to manage that fire to prevent it from spreading to the others tightly packed around it. The problem was, the wind scattered flaming embers with such veracity new fires would spring up almost instantaneously.
At one point, an outbuilding in the middle of the subdivision erupted into flames. Hegdahl used a chainsaw to cut down fences to create a fire line — it was a strategy he turned to often over the next 30 hours. He was surrounded by fires in various stages of development as he fought for an hour to protect Willow Springs, but the inherent danger didn’t concern him at the time. That’s not to say that Hegdahl, who also fought the Paradise fire, wasn’t fully aware of the risks involved.
“You kind of already know that you’re surrounded, but the streets kind of create somewhat of a buffer,” he said. “I can always retreat back to the engine in the street for some level of protection. It really doesn’t cross your mind too much.”
Peterson was camping with his family at Lake of the Woods when he received word that thousands of homes were threatened, so he pulled his boat out of the water and zoomed back to Medford. When he arrived at Station 3 by about 2 p.m., the place was buzzing with activity.
It’s easy to forget, Peterson notes, that the fire response was in addition to the usual 30 to 50 calls per day that his station receives. And it wasn’t long after he arrived that he learned how dire the situation was. Specifically, he was informed that no help from outside Southern Oregon would likely be coming. On that day, resources from Grants Pass to Ashland were all that were available.
“I was like, ‘Oh, my goodness, this is not good,’” he said.
Peterson was inspired by what he saw over the next day and a half, however, as he worked primarily from the incident command center at Fire Station No. 4, helping to deploy trucks and firefighters to structures that still had a chance to be saved.
“It was pretty amazing, the next 30 hours to watch,” he said. “All of us are working 30, 40 hours in a row. And it’s not sitting at a desk. It’s physically demanding work of dragging hose, fighting fires, pulling people and helping people into vehicles, carrying stuff, moving stuff on limited sleep, limited food and water and no real breaks. Some of these guys were working 30-plus hours and their break was a five-minute drive to the next house on fire.”
Peterson estimates that fewer than 200 firefighters battled the Almeda fire during the first two days. A task force from Portland showed up at about 11 p.m. that night to pitch in for the next 12 hours. Besides that, Almeda was almost completely managed by Southern Oregon firefighters.
“It was pretty awesome to watch the team that we built from Grants Pass to Ashland work as hard as they could,” Peterson said. “Unfortunately we weren’t able to save as many homes as we wanted to — you never see that many homes burn. But we were able to stop it that night and contain it to an area, and it was pretty awesome to watch the team of guys and the work that was being done.”
For most of the firefighters that first night, breaks could hardly be called breaks at all. They nodded off for five- or 10-minute intervals if possible, and they couldn’t be picky about where. Sometimes that meant a nap in a bouncing truck between stops, sometimes on asphalt. Ulrich remembers one man in his crew dozing off while spraying a house. When Ulrich slept, it was fitful. He remembers seeing his fire engine burst into flames. He awoke on the side of the road to the realization that he had had a nightmare.
What the firefighters saw and heard inside the Almeda fire wasn’t much different. The roar of the fire combined with explosions of propane tanks and ammunition to create a hellish cacophony. And then there was the smoke. Yes, every firefighter has access to a self-contained breathing apparatus. No, SCBAs and their 30-minute tanks aren’t much help when you’re fighting house fires spreading like wildfires.
Of course, the firefighters knew that what they were ingesting into their lungs — incinerated plastics, insulation, fuel, building materials — was much more toxic than wood smoke, but that was a problem for another day.
“We were eating a lot of smoke, breathing in a lot of that nasty smoke to the point where you’re thinking about that,” Ulrich said. “You’re thinking about the longevity of your life and maybe how much time you’re taking off. A lot of guys put on an N-95 mask, but those restrict your breathing as well, so when you’re working hard you can’t wear that. It makes you more tired.”
Long-term health risks are part of the job, and most firefighters are well aware of the studies that have linked smoke inhalation to cancer.
“We’re pretty sure,” Ulrich said ominously, “that at some point this is going to come back on us.”
It was about 9 p.m. on the first day of the fire that Ulrich was trying to catch a quick nap as another firefighter close by cracked open a hydrant to get ready for the fight ahead. That’s when they discovered that the hydrants were dry — depressurized, it turned out, from the thousands of gushing pipes ruptured in the fire. The timing couldn’t have been much worse. They were told to do everything they could to keep the fire east of Talent Avenue. Give up that line, they feared, and the fire would more than likely consume Talent Elementary, Talent Middle School and several dozen more homes before marching right on up to the Applegate.
The makeshift solution was to fill up the trucks from Ashland hydrants and gun it back, a 10-minute turnaround that only yielded about three to four minutes of spray. They only had two wildfire grass engines (Ford F250s), two engines, one water tender and eight firefighters for a roughly 6-mile stretch of road, but somehow they managed to keep the fire from crossing over Talent Avenue.
That turned out to be a major victory, but Ulrich couldn’t see it that way at the time.
“It really never felt like there was anything you could celebrate that night,” he said. “Everything you felt like you were working for burned to the ground.”
Peterson said some of the unsung heroes that night were the police officers who drove through city streets in near-zero visibility to knock on doors and evacuate stragglers who either weren’t aware of what was happening or unable to find a way out. He believes hundreds of lives were saved that way.
The next morning, after they had managed to get a handle on the fire, Medford Fire Chief Eric Thompson delivered a speech that Peterson says was crucial.
“I don’t remember the words that were said, but he gave a speech to probably 100 firemen, and you could see that that speech re-energized those guys,” Peterson said. “Those guys went back in their fire engines, got redeployed and did a whole bunch of work that morning.”
Looking back at everything that happened during his day-and-a-half-long shift, Hegdahl says it’s only natural for those who worked the Almeda fire to second guess everything they did over the course of the fire. In the end, he said, he had to accept that they were only ever going to be as good that day as the conditions allowed them to be. And the conditions were historically awful.
Fighting the Paradise fire left its own mark on Hegdahl, but he says the Almeda fire was “a different animal.” That’s because he was born and raised in Ashland, and in the days that followed Sept. 8, 2020, he learned of several family members and friends who lost homes in the fire. There was probably some guilt, he says, and maybe even some anger, too.
The fire took three lives, a little fewer than 2,500 residences and destroyed or damaged about 200 businesses. Wrestling with what those numbers meant to him, Hegdahl struggled to find a landing spot before hanging up the phone. Later, he texted back an answer:
“What I rest on at the end of the day,” he said, “is I know that myself and those I worked with gave everything we had that day. I know it wasn’t enough, but I have to take solace in that.”
Joe Zavala can be reached at 541-821-0829 or firstname.lastname@example.org.