Summer is ending, but fire season in the Northwest is still with us. The Oregon Gulch fire was southern Oregon’s largest so far this season, blackening nearly 56 square miles of Jackson, Klamath and Siskiyou counties.
Several homes were lost, others were saved and a rural mountain community came face-to-face with the reality of sudden danger and loss.
Jefferson Public Radio’s Liam Moriarty traces the path the fire took as it marked the lives of those it touched.
I’m riding in a two-man “brush truck,” a small fire engine designed for fighting wildfires. At the wheel is Gene Davies. He’s chief of the tiny Green Springs volunteer Fire Department.
We’re several miles down Copco Road, an unpaved road that winds south -- mostly through private timberland --from Highway 66 in Jackson County to Copco Lake, across the California border. The area is badly burned over, with ankle-deep ash and smoke rising from smoldering stumps.
Gene is showing me where – a few weeks ago – he and a crew member were following up on a report of smoke in the area after a lightning storm rolled through.
Gene Davies: “We made our way down Copco Road, eventually did spot a fairly non-impressive smoke column.”
After meeting up with state and federal crews chasing the same report, Davies found the fire. It was just a few acres at that point. But as they were assessing how best to attack it, the wind suddenly shifted.
Gene Davies: “So immediately any plans we had made were changed. We decided to relocate to see if we could get ourselves into a safer area. And we did so, and that seemed like that was OK. And then the wind shifted again.”
As the rapidly-spreading fire forced them to pull back once more, firefighters made another stand.
Gene Davies: “We started our initial attack, pulling out hose line, trying to flank the fire on both sides. And at some point, the wind shifted 180 degrees and basically began blowing the fire straight back towards us.”
The fire was shooting out hot embers that ignited new fires as the front advanced. A forestry supervisor radioed a spotter plane’s warning that the fire was racing to overtake the crews on the ground
Gene Davies: “It was kind of flanking us, so I was really worried that it was going to actually cut off our escape route if we didn’t move very, very quickly.”
Davies and the other firefighters had to drop their gear and run.
Donnie Rowlett is a volunteer firefighter with the Green Springs department. He says he and his nephew Jesse responded to the fire in a water truck. This was Donnie’s first time on an actual call, and he says as he rolled up to the scene …
Donnie Rowlett: “The first thing I thought was, “Oh! This is a real fire. I could actually die out here.”
Sitting in the dining room of the Pinehurst Inn, a B&B and restaurant he runs with his wife Denise, Donnie recalls that within minutes of his arrival, the fire flared.
Donnie Rowlett: “A row of pine trees in front of us literally exploded into flames. I would say the flames were going easily 100 feet tall and 50 feet away from us. And so Jesse and I looked at each other and didn’t say a word, climbed back in the truck and drove off to a safer location.”
With the fire growing faster than their ability to handle it, Donnie, Gene Davies and other Green Springs firefighters turned their attention to evacuating neighbors and defending structures. At the Fall Creek Ranch further south on Copco Road, they made a stand in an open green meadow and successfully fought to keep the advancing flames from destroying the homes and other buildings there.
Denise Rowlett says when word came to pack up and prepare to evacuate on a moment’s notice, she quickly ran through her priorities.
Denise Rowlett: “So I need my purse, my wallet, medication, a couple of days worth of clothes -- not your entire closet, grab those photo albums. And the rest of it? You really have to turn around, kiss it, bless it and let it go.”
Denise says the stress from the constant roar of the firefighting aircraft felt like being in a war zone.
Denise Rowlett: “The house shook, as if there was an earthquake, because they were so low, so close. And then five minutes later, they’re coming through again.”
Late that night, the wind shifted and moved the fire away from the Pinehurst Inn, but it was several days before the evacuation warning was lifted. Donnie says he and Denise are grateful and deeply touched by the efforts of their neighbors.
Donnie Rowlett: “I’m also amazed at the number of people who were willing to put their lives on the line for me and my home.”
For Judy Trautman, that gratitude has a bittersweet edge. She and her family lost their home of 37 years to the flames. She says she was packing to evacuate when the order came to leave immediately.
Judy Trautman: “We stayed to the last minute and pretty much ran for our lives at that point because the fire crowned right near our land and it became a fire storm.”
Trautman says when she and her family finally returned to their 20-acre property, there wasn’t much left.
Judy Trautman: “The fire was so intense that it just took out everything. Even the front lawn. We’d thrown a bunch of stuff in the grass in the front yard and it just burned the grass down to dirt.”
Despite that, Trautman says her family hopes to rebuild and live on their property again.
Judy Trautman: “Even though it’s surrounded by a moonscape of nothing but rock and dead trees, it’s our home and we don’t want to leave.”
A common thread among the folks who told me their stories was a deepened appreciation of their community; the way neighbors came to each others’ aid in a time of danger, and the support they’ve shown each other in the aftermath.
With the embers cooling, life around Green Springs is returning to normal. But residents say the fire has been a wake-up call that their quiet rural community can, without warning, be changed forever.