In the heat of the battle against the Oak Knoll fire Tuesday evening, veteran wildlands firefighter Brian Ballou stepped in to help residents whose homes stood in harm's way.
What he saw alarmed him.
"There were countless examples of readily available dry fuel against houses that could catch fire — firewood stacked under eaves, piles of dry leaves," said Ballou, spokesman for the Oregon Department of Forestry's Southwest Oregon District.
"You can do a lot of things in advance that will pay off for a day like that," he said of making a home more resistant to a fast-moving wildfire. "You certainly don't have time to do the work when the fire is coming at you."
From start to finish, the Oak Knoll fire wreaked havoc for a little under an hour, destroying 11 homes and damaging three others, he said.
"That was a high intensity fire that moved very, very fast," he said, later adding, "When you have firewood piled next to a house catch fire, it will do what it is intended to do — burn hot."
Ignited on the west side of Interstate 5 in a grassy field, the fire jumped the freeway via windborne embers, ignited brush and oak trees on the east side and swept into the residential area, officials said.
As an agency whose mission includes fighting wildland fires, ODF provided mutual aid along with local fire departments to help Ashland Fire & Rescue battle the blaze.
"Those homes were close to each other on small lots," Ballou said. "Once one home caught fire, the fire transferred from one structure to another. It's real hard to stop when it happens that fast."
Property owners can improve the chances of their home's survival by removing nearby dry wood and debris, thinning vegetation around it and planting only trees and shrubs that are the least flammable.
"In this case, there was heavy fuel around some of those homes," Ballou said. "There were multiple homes on fire before anyone (firefighters) could set up. It happened real fast."
But the results were vastly different than the 190-acre Siskiyou fire that burned in Ashland just southwest of Highway 99 on Sept. 21, 2009, he said.
"This was in sharp contrast to the fire a year ago," he said. "Fuel reduction had been done by landowners around their homes."
As a result, the 2009 fire's spread was delayed, enabling firefighters to quickly set up and attack the fire, he said.
Although the fire danger is currently rated extreme, limiting the hours when power tools can be used in areas of dry grass, mowing is allowed up until 10 a.m. and after 8 p.m.
"There are things you can do now that don't require power tools — raking leaves, using a ladder to clean out your gutters," he said.
"Dry needles inside gutters can catch fire and cause fires that go under roofing."
Removing "ladder" fuel, such as the lower limbs of trees, also helps keep flames from climbing into trees, torching the canopies, officials explained.
"There are also some landscaping plants — junipers, cypress — that you don't want to have very close to a home," he said, noting the flammability of the plants.
"And you definitely don't want them under a window where they can blow out a window when they catch fire and be inside your house in a matter of seconds," he said.
Firefighters were also concerned that some residents scaled their roofs with a garden hose in an attempt to fight the oncoming fire.
"Spraying your roof with a garden hose is not going to buy you much time," Ballou said, noting that an artificial roof such as asphalt shingles shed water and wooden shingles must be sufficiently damp to ward off a fire.
"We had to advise several people to get off their roofs during the fire," he said. "The last thing we needed was to have someone tumble off a roof and break a leg."
Although many residents in Jackson and Josephine counties believe that fire danger dies away at the end of August, September always poses a threat, Ballou said.
"Historically, it has been one of the worst months for dangerous fires," he said, noting September often brings "roller coaster" weather that includes hot spells.
"It is not a month to let down your guard," he warned.
For information on how to improve fire safety outside your home, Ballou encourages area residents to check out www.firewise.org.
Paul Fattig is a reporter for the Mail Tribune. Reach him at 776-4496 or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.