The Almeda Fire of 9/8/20: We WILL Rise from the Ashes
by Curtis Hayden (October 2020)
First came the wind. It blew into Ashland the early morning hours of Tuesday, September 8, and our house shook with the force of 40mph gusts. The next morning branches and detritus littered the yard but luckily all of the big trees were standing … and we still had internet.
I was scheduled to play golf that day at Centennial, located a half-mile north of Home Depot at the Phoenix exit. At 10:00 I got a call from David, a member of the foursome, wondering if we should cancel. “Nah,” I said, “if they can handle it at St. Andrews, we can do it.”
At 11:30 I was packing the golf clubs into the car when I got another call. “There’s a fire in Quiet Village, and it’s out of control,” he said. “They might even shut down I-5.”
I immediately went into denial mode. I’ve seen the Ashland Fire Department in action and just figured they’d have total control of the situation. So I drove to I-5 on a reconnaissance mission, and sure enough, the Interstate was closed and off to the north, a huge column of smoke filled the air.
Back at the house, we had some major concerns. At 12:30 our son called from his apartment in the south end of Talent (in between 99 and Talent Avenue) and said he could see the smoke and the fire coming his way. He made the command decision to evacuate and drove straight up 99 to his dad’s house in south Phoenix. Unfortunately, everyone was evacuating and 99 was a madhouse. It took almost an hour to make it to his dad’s, and meanwhile the fire was catching up to him.
He made it to Greenway Mobile Home Park in time to help his dad evacuate, and off they went in two separate cars. We would not see them until the next morning as they drove around in circles trying to find a safe haven.
Meanwhile, our older daughter’s husband owned a greenhouse business in Phoenix just off Highway 99, and by mid-afternoon he had to evacuate. He, too, would drive around in circles trying to navigate horrendous traffic jams of evacuees.
Our youngest daughter was packing up for a day trip to Crater Lake, when her friend called to say that all of the houses on Ashland Lane (across the Interstate) at the north exit, were burning and he was staying put in a valiant attempt to save his house. She then got a call from her roommate who worked in Phoenix and was having lunch at McDonald’s at the Phoenix exit. “You have to get out of there now!” my daughter screamed. The roommate looked out the window and saw smoke heading her way. She immediately got in her car and drove to Corvallis, where she spent the night with friends.
Everyone in the valley has similar stories to tell, and I put out a call to hear some of them and to piece together a day that most of us will never forget.
A Conversation at Ground Zero
Ground zero for the fire was 199 Almeda Street in Quiet Village. It was 11:04 in the morning, Tuesday, September 8, 2020. Kernan Turner recalls the day vividly.
“A workman building a patio in our back yard smelled smoke, ran down to our back fence and saw the fire heading toward our place,” Turner said. “He alerted my wife Mina and me. I ran next door because I knew our neighbor a long time ago had jury-rigged a high-pressure hose with a large nozzle for just such an emergency. He wasn’t home, but a neighbor and I got the hose working and began spraying the flames, which had reached to within 15 feet of our home. Mina and some neighbors had called 911 and the firemen got here within 15 minutes. One fireman with a full-fledged fire hose knocked down the flames within five minutes and other Ashland firemen were spraying the wetland behind our house.”
According to Wildfire Division Chief Chris Chambers at Ashland Fire & Rescue, it was all hands on deck from the very beginning.
“We had four fire engines at Almeda for a one-alarm fire and immediately changed it to a two-alarm fire and called in more from District 5,” he said. “There was just some minor damage to homes in Quiet Village. Once the fire jumped and began spreading because of the winds, we called in more help from Jackson County and even Josephine County. We contacted California Fire Resources, but they couldn’t send anybody, although officers from California Highway Patrol helped with traffic and evacuations.”
While firemen saved the homes in Quiet Village, the fire quickly spread into the underbrush along the Bear Creek Greenway and the 40mph winds fueled its drive. It took off for Talent and Phoenix, and even threatened Medford. Turner surmised that the fire was man-made but not necessarily on purpose.
“We do know it started at the edge of the BMX park behind the wastewater treatment plant,” he said. “That’s all we know.”
Meanwhile Jamie Rosenthal, whose house was a block away on Oxford Street and faced Bear Creek, was also starting to freak out. “I was riding my bicycle home and turned on Glendower Street (which was adjacent to the burning field),” she said.
“People were literally running the opposite direction I was headed, but my 14-year-old son was home alone. There was a literal wall of fire burning behind our house. We tossed as much stuff into our car as we could, thinking there was absolutely no chance we’d return to anything but our home in ashes.”
Fortunately for her, the wind moved the fire northeast, where it jumped Bear Creek and fed on the open fields. Before long, Rosenthal was able to return home.
“I was so incredibly moved and grateful that we didn’t lose our home,” she said. “From my roof I watched this beautiful farmhouse on Eagle Mill Road taken as their eight or so horses, without saddles or bridles, were released to run free.”
When my wife and I checked it out on Google Earth, she was totally bummed out. “That’s Evan Archerd’s place,” she said. “I took a few riding lessons there.”
I called Gateway Real Estate, where Evan works as a broker, and they confirmed that it was his home, but the barn was saved, and all of the horses made it back alive.
Looking for drier pastures, the fire sped north across Butler Creek Road, then jumped Valley View Road and the Interstate to the east. My daughter’s friend, Bill Rowe, lives on Ashland Lane, which runs roughly parallel to the Interstate heading back toward Ashland.
“At noon I could see smoke coming from Ashland and was a little concerned,” he said. “By 2:00, though, the wind picked up and the flames had jumped I-5 and were quickly spreading. Houses all up and down the street were in flames.”
Thinking clearly, Rowe had turned on all of the sprinklers at the edge of the property facing the Interstate. “By the time the grass fire reached us, the ground was so saturated that the fire merely smoldered,” he said. “At 3:30 a fire crew with a bulldozer arrived and dug a huge fire line just in case the fire re-ignited.”
We had heard through the grapevine that Burger King on Valley View Road had burned down, but that the two gas stations remained intact. That area is just a stone’s throw from Ashland Lane. When I called Valley View Auto, Vince told me that the police came in and evacuated everyone at 11:30.
“We left everything behind—tools, customers’ cars, the works,” he said. “When we left, the field behind us was totally in flames, and so was the field across the street, where Burger King is. I didn’t come back until 7:00 that night to lock everything up, but from what I heard, they had helicopters dropping water all around us to make sure the gasoline tanks didn’t blow up. The reason Burger King went up is probably because of all the grease on its roof from cooking so many hamburgers.”
Rumors also reached us that the Nauvoo Park Estates Mobile Home Park, directly across from Town & Country Chevrolet, burned to that ground, but thankfully they were spared. The wind had turned and blew the fire in a more northeasterly direction, and it had now had a direct shot to Talent along Highway 99, using the Bear Creek Mobile Home Park as more fuel.
On the other side of the Interstate, news crews were giving hourly updates, as hundreds of acres of vineyards were being threatened. Fortunately, much of that was salvaged, and the fire petered out somewhere south of Home Depot.
When I called Centennial Golf Course, General Manager Brian Sackett said fire crews were using the golf course as a fire line.
“They had crews on the #4 tee overlooking the Interstate ready with fire retardant if the fire jumped I-5,” he said. “We would have turned all the sprinklers on, but unfortunately, we lost power. We took all of our maintenance equipment out of the shop and parked them in the middle of the driving range. But being so green, this golf course made the perfect fire line. Our hearts go out to everyone who lost their homes. We had four employees and three volunteers who lost everything.”
Meanwhile Catherine Wallner was freaking out at her shop in Ashland because their home on Wilson Road, to the east of Ashland Lane, was being evacuated.
“Our home was threatened but neither my husband nor I could get there due to traffic and road closures,” she said. “Our son tried to evacuate with our dog and cat but couldn’t get through the smoke and flames. I felt so helpless being stuck in town. He finally made it out and drove on Eagle Mill Road, where the power poles were burning and there were live wires on the ground sparking more fires. We are grateful that our house made it but feel so sad so many others burned.”
Reality Is Not Any Fun
We went to bed on Tuesday night hearing apocryphal stories about Ashland and Phoenix burning to the ground, and we hoped they were just rumors. We had learned that our son-in-law made it back to Ashland alive by taking back roads. At 8am, our son and his dad pulled into the driveway. They’d been hampered by road blocks and bad traffic, driving around aimlessly Tuesday afternoon and had pulled off the road near dusk in order to get their bearings.
“We were on the east side of the freeway near a Phoenix subdivision when I guy drove up and asked us if we needed a place to stay for the night,” they said. “He lived right around the corner and his wife was back in Tennessee trying to sell their house. We said, ‘Sure,’ and we actually had our own rooms for the night.”
Meanwhile, we also learned that our son-in-law lost his entire greenhouse business—and his truck—that he’d worked two years to help develop. The shop with all the equipment was located just off Highway 99, and his and numerous other businesses in the line of fire were completely destroyed.
That’s when our son was notified that his apartment complex in Talent was destroyed and that Phoenix also took an enormous hit. We were in shock. Yes, we’ve had lots of forest fires over the years, but Oregonians were not used to whole communities burning to the ground. Oakland, Santa Rosa, Paradise, Weed, Redding—those were all California problems. We just assumed that things were different here in Oregon, and we got way too complacent.
After turning on the news and seeing the destruction from the air, I got sick to my stomach. According to Ashland Fire & Rescue’s Chris Chambers, once the fire picked up steam from the dry fields and blackberry bushes near Valley View Road, there was no stopping it.
“It was just moving too fast, and we didn’t have the resources,” he said. “At that point, people needed to be evacuated. It was the worst conditions possible—high winds, low humidity, and bushes, trees and grass that were dried out from hot weather and lack of water.”
Propelled by momentum and high winds, the fire scorched the entire area in Talent between Highway 99 and Talent Avenue. There were just too many apartments and mobile homes jammed together, and the fire leaped from one to another. People were evacuating as quickly as possible, and Highway 99 and surrounding streets became a madhouse.
One person who kept his head was J.R. Robertson, owner of Rogue Valley Electric, whose shop was located in Talent and in the direct line of fire. Police had pulled up to the shop and ordered them to evacuate, but he had to make sure that the older couple who lived next door to the building had left. He went knocking on their door and they had no idea that there was a fire. Their sister-in-law was bed bound and couldn’t get up, so Robertson and one of his employees lifted her to a vehicle to make the escape.
In the aftermath, there has been an unbelievable outpouring of community support. The last estimate was that 2500 homes and/or apartments had been destroyed, which means thousands of people are instantly homeless. Some are migrant workers who are too scared to ask for help. Residents are opening up their homes to the displaced, the Expo has been turned into a refugee camp, gofundme pages have been established, relief funds are coming from local banks and state and federal governments, and already the work of cleaning up and starting over has begun.
The human toll is staggering. Three days after the fire, we went to La Casa del Pueblo, a Mexican restaurant in Ashland owned by some friends of ours, the de la Cruz family. We were relieved to hear that Salvador’s home in Phoenix was spared, but unfortunately, his brother (and partner in the Ashland restaurant) Ramon lost everything, as did their sister Teresa and two other brothers. Ramon has four young children, and they were staying at an in-law’s house. Someone put a gofundme page up for him, and it didn’t take long to reach his goal. That was a familiar refrain throughout the valley—heart-breaking stories of loss and an outpouring of support from the community.
On Thursday I was forwarded a somber press release from InfoStructure, a local internet company founded by Scott Hansen and Chad Cota. Their two corporate office buildings in Talent were completely destroyed, but they had a message of hope and resilience.
“While this is devasting to our InfoStructure family, we are committed to our customers to maintain business as usual (or as close to it as possible),” they said. “We are currently limited to our customer support team since most workstations were inside the buildings, so there might be some added delays in getting issues resolved, but rest assured we are doing the best we can under the circumstances. The good news is the network redundancies we’ve worked hard to build proved to work well, as most of our services were not affected when our buildings went offline.”
That is the sentiment I’ve heard all over the valley. Yeah, we’ve lost everything, but we’re not going to roll over and die. We’re going to get back up and rebuild and come back stronger than ever. We will rise from the as