Fire crews made progress yesterday afternoon on the Moccasin Hill wildfire, about 35 miles northeast of Klamath Falls. The fire, which started Sunday, has burned 2,500 acres and 20 structures, including six homes.
Reporter Devan Schwartz visited the town of Sprague River and spoke with people who lost everything, and those in the community lending a hand.
I’m riding in a truck with James Thompson, who co-owns Whistler’s Trading Post. It’s one of Sprague River’s few businesses. He’s taking me to see where the homes have burned.
It smells of singed ponderosa pine, juniper and sagebrush. Some of the smoldering lots had trailers or modest cabins — others more traditional wood and concrete homes.
Tonight, there’s no wind and fire crews are patrolling the hot spots.
Just as things seem calm, Thompson, sees flames kick up. The fire is threatening the home of a local pastor. Thompson guns it over the dirt road and alerts a fire crew.
Thompson: “Hey, there’s a house right over the hill—”
Firefighter: “Uh huh.”
Thompson: “There’s a fire encroaching, I mean it’s right next to the house, if you could go over there and put this out.”
Firefighter: “You got it.”
Thompson: “Thank you very much. Appreciate it.”
He tells me if we hadn’t driven up to look around, the pastor’s place might be gone.
That’s what happened to the home of Summer Swager and her husband, David Pool. We pass their property. A spiral staircase twists into the sky like exposed ribs, a metal bedframe stands amongst ashes.
Swager: “It’s disgusting, it’s heart-wrenching, it’s not fun.”
Swager says she knows the conditions were just right for a blaze like this.
Swager: “There’s no snowpack in the mountains, there’s no water in the rivers, there’s no water in the creeks, it’s too dry.”
Back in the town of Sprague River, Red Cross volunteers are giving out food and household goods to the newly displaced. Julie Moseley lived in the same house for 25 years. Until the fire, she shared it with her daughter, son-in-law and two granddaughters. The family left in such a hurry, Moseley says the flames even took her dentures.
Moseley: “I have my clothes here and what a few people have given me — that’s it. I’m just trying to hang on.”
More than 400 firefighters pitched in to battle the blaze. Mark Steadman says firefighters staged around his modular home and kept it protected.
Steadman: “They saved my mobile. I’m so grateful. My neighbor’s house is burnt to the ground.”
Chris Cline is incident commander for the Oregon Department of Forestry. That means he coordinates firefighters, helicopters, water tankers, and keeps up on all the fires in the Northwest. He’s hoping to get this fire fully contained by the weekend — when forecasters are warning of possible lightning strikes.
Cline says he’s been fighting wildfires in Oregon for more than 25 years. Last summer was the biggest wildfire season he can remember. But he thinks this year could be even worse.
Cline: “Currently we’re on track in fire season 2014 to either match or exceed the numbers that were set last year — so things are at a critical level.”
Federal officials made a disaster declaration for the Moccasin Hill Fire. Investigators are still assessing the cause of the fire — but what’s certain is that the community of Sprague River won’t forget this fire any time soon.
With months still to go in a drought-fueled fire season, it’s a safe bet this will only be the beginning.
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