With several homes already engulfed in flames on Oak Knoll Drive, Ashland Fire & Rescue Chief John Karns drove down the street in his Ford Explorer, searching for a house where firefighters might have a chance of stopping the blaze.
There was only one fire engine, staffed by two firefighters, on the scene battling the quickly advancing fire, although helicopters were beginning to make water drops.
Other firefighters from Ashland and the rest of the Rogue Valley were busy on Washington Street, on the other side of Interstate 5 where the Aug. 24 fire started, and on Clover Lane, where the fire had spotted across the freeway before the wind spread flames and embers to Oak Knoll Drive.
Karns found his target — a home at 979 Oak Knoll Drive with a flat, fire-resistant roof.
"I picked my line in the sand," Karns said.
But he still wasn't sure whether help would arrive soon enough to cut off the advance of the fire.
979 still standing
By the time Karns raced back down the street to the burning homes, a second fire engine had arrived. Then a third fire engine, which had made the trip all the way from Medford, reached the scene and took a stance near 979 Oak Knoll.
The firefighters and helicopters worked together to stop the forward advance of the fire, which was driven down the street by winds that gusted up to 22 mph. At the same time, they had to keep the fire from spreading sideways and igniting 30 homes on the other side of Oak Knoll Drive.
Ultimately, the fire burned 11 homes and damaged three others.
But the house with the fire-resistant roof is still standing, as are all the homes past that house.
Firefighters battling other fronts kept the fire from burning businesses, gas stations and homes near Washington Street on the west side of I-5 and Clover Lane on the east side.
In choosing where to make a stand against the fire in the Oak Knoll neighborhood, Karns said he had to evaluate how defensible the homes on the street were from a firefighter's perspective. Houses with wood shake shingles were not good candidates.
"We had to make a stand somewhere. It was a hard decision, because you're writing off some houses," he said.
Fire-resistant roof, dirt buffer were key
A few weeks after the fire, Martin and Lorene Recio stood outside their home at 979 Oak Knoll and pointed to a patio umbrella pocked with holes from burning embers that fell from the sky.
"You can see where they landed," Martin Recio said.
The fire's heat melted sprinkler heads in the lawn and seared trees.
But their roof was undamaged.
About 16 years ago, the couple replaced their leaking roof with a torch-down roof. Workers used torches to meld an asphalt-blend roofing material to the top of the house, then made the roof extra fire-resistant with a double layer of aluminum coating.
In the direction of the fire stands the charred remnants of a neighboring house, some of its wood shake shingles still visible.
On the other side of the Recios' home, Lee O'Driscoll of Jacksonville-based Cloverleaf Construction was finishing work to repair a wooden gate and fence corner that burned during the fire. Inside the fence, a house with a fire-resistant composite roof still stood. A bush touching the house was shriveled and drooping from the fire's heat.
"The firefighters stopped it here," O'Driscoll said, motioning to the area around the fence and the Recios' property. "All of the ground was saturated with water. You can see the path of the fire. It was so hot, it cooked the trees over there."
O'Driscoll, who has worked on fire-damaged property before, said people should consider fire-resistant materials for their houses and keep flammable vegetation away from fences and homes.
He said wood shake roofs, especially those made with cedar, are dangerous. Cedar was a popular roofing material in the 1960s and '70s.
"Cedar is highly flammable. People like to use that for kindling to start a fire," O'Driscoll said.
In addition to having a fire-resistant roof, Martin Recio said he tries to keep vegetation at least 10 to 15 feet back from his house. One side of his home borders an undeveloped lot dotted with trees, so Recio has a dirt buffer the width of a one-lane road running between his home and the lot. Firefighters were able to use that dirt buffer to get around to the back side of his home.
"We feel really fortunate and we grieve for the others who lost their houses," Lorene Recio said.
She said she doesn't make judgments about the homes that were lost to the fire.
The blaze was so hot and fast-moving, Lorene Recio said she thinks even homes with fire-resistant building materials and landscaping could have burned.
'All I could see was black smoke'
She and her husband know what it's like to lose a home to a fire. They've lived in their Oak Knoll home for 22 years, but the retirees also owned a home in Medford where their adult son was living. That home burned in 2007. No one was hurt.
During the Oak Knoll fire, the Recios quickly evacuated and had to watch from afar. The fire initially sent up gray smoke as it burned through dried grass and bushes, then started belching out columns of black smoke as it devoured homes.
"I thought my house was gone. All I could see was black smoke," Martin Recio recalled. "A neighbor said, 'A firefighter is spraying water on your house. Maybe you have a chance.'"
After the Oak Knoll fire, the Recios were displaced from their house for a day and a half, but then were able to return.
"You can't imagine how great it is to just come into your own house and do the little things, like brush your teeth," Lorene Recio said.
When asked how it felt to know their fire-resistant home helped firefighters stop the advance of a raging fire, Martin Recio said simply, "Praise the Lord."