ashland.news
June 13, 2024

Almeda Fire-fight memories still burn bright 3 years after fire put out

A photo of the Almeda Fire from the new book “Talent, Oregon: The Almeda Fire.”
September 8, 2023

Ashland fire and Talent police personnel recall the frantic battle to stop flames and evacuate people

By Morgan Rothborne, Ashland.news

“I don’t tell this story often, but it really is about how desperate the fight was. Do you know how fast a bobcat can run?” Kelly Burns said.

On Sept. 8, 2020, when the Almeda Fire carved its 11-mile path of destruction, Burns was a battalion chief for Ashland Fire & Rescue (AFR). It was AFR firefighters who first responded to the 11:05 a.m. call for a grass fire near 164 Almeda Drive and, with other Jackson County agencies, fought the wind-driven flames for the next 36 hours. 

Ashland Fire and Rescue Battalion Chief Kelly Burns became Ashland’s first emergency manager in February of 2022.

“Thirty-mph sustained, that’s what scientists tell us is how fast a bobcat can run. Two of our guys on a brush rig going through the greenway (after the fire) came up on a bobcat that had been burned over. It was pretty clear it was trying to get away. I have a picture of it, and I take it out and look at it sometimes, and I think — ‘If a bobcat can’t outrun that, what chance does a person have?’” Burns said.

No longer battalion chief, Burns is now emergency management coordinator for the city of Ashland. He recently looked back three years at that long day and answered his own question with a lesson echoed by others who fought the fire — the best chance for people is each other. During the fight against the flames, it was cooperation between first responders, agencies, and individuals that averted everything that could have been. 

“We should have lost so many more people. As much as any death from something like this is tragic, there were only three people who died,” he said.

When the grass fire call came in, Burns remembered pulling on his equipment at the fire station and telling his crew, “Put your game faces on.” Ashland Fire & Rescue had been answering calls for downed trees and power lines from that day’s wind event all morning. Burns knew from experience what the high wind could mean for a September grass fire. 

He could see the plume of smoke before arriving on scene, he said. He called all available local law enforcement to start evacuations of the nearby neighborhoods. Driving down Almeda Drive to nearby Michelle Avenue, he saw a row of tall cypress-like trees outside Ashland’s Wastewater Treatment Plant engulfed in flames. 

“There was this enormous 80-foot-tall and probably 80-foot-wide wave of fire heading toward the homes of Quiet Village and the tip of Ashland. I only had a small handful of firefighters and resources to put between that wave and the neighborhoods,” he said. 

As he moved through Quiet Village, thinking about how these homes would likely all be destroyed, Burns noticed two had already begun to catch on fire. At that moment, an engine from Jackson County Fire District No.5 came in to help. By 11:16 a.m., air attack was handed off to the Oregon Department of Forestry, Burns said.

A photo shows some of the Almeda Fire devastation. Photo courtesy Jackson County Community Long-Term Recovery Group
Talent officer aided evacuations

On Sept. 8, 2020, now-Talent Police Chief Jen Snook was a lieutenant, sitting in court in Medford when she heard about the fire over the radio. She immediately drove over to help with evacuations. Asked if anyone contacted her, she said no. 

Talent police Chief Jen Snook also works part-time as the city’s emergency manager.

“It’s just what we do, I knew I was needed and went in to help,” she said.

But as she was working traffic control near Valley View Road, Snook saw the fire was headed for home. She drove back to Talent, calling all available resources to evacuate the neighborhoods in danger. Evacuations were not smooth or easy.

“At one time I picked up a bunch of people that were stranded on the freeway, they were walking. The back seat of my patrol car is made for two people. We had six adults crammed in the backseat,” she said.

She and other first responders ferried residents to a temporary shelter at The Expo, she said. Jackson County brought a fuel truck to the site to keep first responders going as they drove stranded residents to safety. 

Burns remembered sheriff’s deputies coming to the command post reporting some residents refused to evacuate. Deputies were driven to tears at the thought of finding dozens of bodies in the wake of the fire.

“Even if you tell people, ‘You need to evacuate,’ sometimes they just don’t believe. You’d go back like three hours later and see’em still there and ask, ‘What are you still doing here?’ and they say, ‘I didn’t think this would happen, or that it would come this close. I don’t have a ride,’” Snook said. 

Some residents had little time to flee. According to dispatch recordings from Sept. 8, in less than half an hour the fire was approaching Interstate 5 at Exit 19 in Ashland. A resource labeled 8106 spoke over the radio at just after 11:45:

“Got caught up in the flame front… We need to get everyone out of here, we almost got overrun, there’s no visibility,” the recording said. 

Bear Creek Mobile Home Park on Lowe Road is 0.2 miles from Exit 19, many of its residents were disabled and elderly, Burns said.

“It’s one way in and one way out. The fire was coming down the road and people had pushed themselves up against the creek where there was tons of fuel,” he said. 

Ashland firefighters, District 5 firefighters and Jackson County Sheriff’s deputies converged on Lowe Road. District 5 firefighters like Brady Graham were picking up residents in their arms and carrying them to safety when a sheriff’s deputy said, “We need vans,” Burns remembered. 

Deputies drove to nearby Butler Ford and asked and the clerk behind the counter tossed over the keys. Firefighters sprayed water over the entrance to the neighborhood to beat back the flames enough for deputies to drive the vans through, fill them with the stranded residents, and drive out again. 

Throughout the fight, the power and speed of the fire faced first responders with problems they had never seen, Burns said.

“The whole city (of Talent) was out of power. We had extra power supplies at Public Works. Fire was all around Public Works,” Snook said. 

Talent has since obtained grant money for additional redundancies in their power supplies, she said. 

Burns remembered the way some Rogue Valley residents came to the aid of first responders. Avista operator Chaska Bartow called Burns at around 1 p.m. They knew each other because their children went to school together, he said. 

“Chaska calls and says, ‘Hey there’s a natural gas transfer station in Talent and if the fire gets there it could be bad.’ I knew him to be smart. I said, ‘How do we make it safe?’” Burns said. 

Bartow offered to shut off the natural gas from Phoenix to Medford. Burns worried he would be depriving people of power who may never face the fire. When he asked for a second option, Bartow sent operators and trucks into the field to progressively shut power off ahead of the fire. Burns said he still notices the transfer station on Talent Avenue. It was spared. 

Hours later, Tommy Hoak, a mechanic with the city of Ashland, called in to Burns’ makeshift command post in a hotel parking lot near the northbound I-5 exit. 

“He was like, ‘I’m sending a fuel truck over,’ and I was like, ‘Why?’ and he was like, ‘Because your engines are about to run out of gas,’” Burns said. 

Immediately after Hoak’s call, engines began calling in to report empty gas tanks. By the time engines retreated back to Ashland, a fuel truck was waiting at the command post. Ashland’s engines had never previously fought a fire for that long, Burns said, so before Almeda no one thought about refueling engines in the field.

As the sun was setting on the flames, the hydrants of Talent stopped working. Firefighters chose this moment to make a stand. 

“When our water supply failed, we said, ‘We need to draw a line in the sand, the south side of Talent Avenue, we can’t let anything burn there.’ The wind was moving too fast, the fire was moving way too fast and eating everything,” Burns said. 

Ashland’s then-Fire Chief David Shepherd was in the field with the engines. Shepherd devised a system to get water from the closest working hydrant — near the Lithia Springs Resort — to the flames on Talent Avenue, Burns said. Akin to soccer practice drills, the engines drove slowly in a line. The engine in the front doused the flames until their water tank was exhausted. The empty engine then drove back to the working hydrant while the engine behind it continued spraying. Engines pulled into the back of the line once they were full of water and continued circling this way.

Burns said it has since been determined the hydrants likely failed because when homes burn in the hundreds, the pipes that would feed a hydrant melt and the water flows freely into the ground. City of Ashland staff are still trying to determine how to fix this increasingly common symptom of megafires, he said.

Burns remembered the day as a humbling experience. 

“From the moment it went, every ounce of my training, of my being, was poured into, ‘We have to try to slow this thing down and stop it,’ and we were way overmatched. We could not stop. Even though we got beat every step of the way, I just kept swinging,” he said.

Like many other Rogue Valley residents, Snook finds herself nervous when the wind blows. 

“I’ve worked in this community for 20-plus years. To see the people that I see on almost a daily basis, lose everything. … Almeda is hard for me,” she said. 

Both Snook and Burns can also reflect on the day as one of lessons that was not without its silver linings. As the event came to a close, firefighters at the command post felt beaten. 

“One of the captains from an Ashland engine came up to me. Now, we’re not demonstrably emotional with each other. He comes up to me and wraps me in this big hug. And I’m like, ‘What are you doing?’ and he’s like, ‘We did it! We did it!’” Burns said. 

Quiet Village was still standing. The same neighborhood Burns had walked through hours before, believing every home would be gone was saved. He later learned it was the engine from Fire District 5 that responded immediately to the grass fire call. Those firefighters put down a hose line and kept the fire back.  

After the fire was over, cooperation and assistance did not dim but expanded. The city of Medford loaned the city of Talent a generator to keep its police station running. Police officers from as close as Jacksonville and as far as Klamath Falls came to help patrol the hazardous, still smoldering burn scar in Talent, Snook said.

“In a disaster, we are all in this together. Almeda taught us that,” Burns said. 

Email Ashland.news reporter Morgan Rothborne at morganr@ashland.news.

Picture of Bert Etling

Bert Etling

Bert Etling is the executive editor of Ashland.news. Email him at betling@ashland.news.

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