A third-party assessment of the Oak Knoll fire praised Ashland Fire & Rescue's coordination of firefighting efforts and the city's response, though city officials said they saw room for improvement in communication.
The seven-page report was prepared by retired Santa Clara Fire Department Deputy Fire Chief Clark Custodio, who lives in Ashland.
"We wanted to make sure that someone who was not involved in the fire took a look at how we did," said City Administrator Martha Bennett.
Bennett said although Custodio was in the profession himself and is probably sympathetic to firefighters, she believes he delivered an objective evaluation of the Oak Knoll response. He also brought his professional knowledge to the task, she said.
"We had to hire someone who knew something about fire," Bennett said.
Custodio concluded local firefighters acted effectively to stop the Aug. 24 fire that started on Washington Street and spread to Oak Knoll Drive, where it burned 11 homes and damaged three others. He said he was impressed with media coverage and believed its effectiveness could be attributed to the public information work done by the fire department and other city staff.
Bennett said more could've been done to inform the public, however.
"I don't think he was critical enough of what we need to do to better improve our communication," Bennett said.
The city's emergency hotline was overloaded by callers and some people couldn't receive emergency broadcasts on AM 1700. The city is updating the line to handle 100 callers instead of 24, and it is now able to stream emergency radio broadcasts on its Web site at www.ashland.or.us.
Strong winds, dry vegetation, high temps and low humidity
Custodio noted that "all the factors that make a vegetation fire grow into a dangerous fire that threatens nearby homes were present," including strong winds, dry vegetation, high temperatures and low humidity. He wrote the areas burned by the fire, which started in the late afternoon, were preheated by the sun, and a gully channeled the fire and raised its intensity.
Once the fire jumped Interstate 5, its spread was hastened by combustible roof material on some of the houses on Oak Knoll Drive, as well as flammable landscaping, he wrote.
Custodio faulted the Oregon Department of Transportation for not removing dry vegetation from its jurisdiction along I-5 next to neighbors' wooden fences.
Bennett said land nearest the fences may actually be privately owned and under Jackson County's jurisdiction. The Oak Knoll Drive homes were just inside the city limits.
ODOT District Manager Jerry Marmon said ODOT's corridor of land along I-5 had been mowed within a week of the fire.
ODOT doesn't remove the scattered grass left behind by mowers, he said.
"We would have semi loads of it. It becomes mulch that goes back into the ground," Marmon said.
Custodio credited the leadership of Ashland Fire Capt. Dave Shepherd, incident commander of the Washington fire, in keeping the blaze from burning businesses along Washington Street. Many citizens could have lost their livelihoods, he said.
Once the fire jumped the interstate, the Washington command separated the blaze into two incidents and sent resources to evacuate citizens and stop the fire, Custodio wrote.
"Among firefighters the greatest compliment one can pay another is, 'You made a great stop.' This certainly was the case at both the Washington Fire on the west side of I-5 and the Oak Knoll Fire on the east side," Custodio wrote.
Fire spots across Interstate 5
Ashland Fire Chief John Karns said firefighters saw the fire spot across I-5 just past the end of Clover Lane. Firefighters were hampered there by a cable stretching across the end of the lane, which they had to cut with bolt-cutters, Karns said.
The cable separated the lane from a field with tall grass and weeds that was littered with debris.
Firefighters working at the end of Clover Lane stopped it from creeping back to a string of hotels, light manufacturing firms and gas stations on the lane, and from burning forward to homes on Spring Creek Drive, Karns said.
Only one fire engine staffed with two firefighters was available in the beginning to battle the fire that had started burning homes on Oak Knoll Drive, said Karns, who was one of the first fire department staff members to reach the fire there.
Custodio mistakenly wrote in his report that "the houses destroyed by fire were confined to those already on fire when the fire department personnel arrived on Oak Knoll Drive."
Custodio did not return phone calls seeking comment on his assessment of the fire response.
Karns said several homes were on fire when the first engine to reach Oak Knoll Drive began battling the blaze.
He chose a home down the street with a fire-resistant roof to make a stand against the advancing fire.
Two more fire engines arrived, bringing the total to three fire engines on Oak Knoll Drive for the initial attack. Firefighters were helped by helicopters dropping water, Karns said.
Together they stopped the forward advance of the fire at the fire-resistant house, and also kept it from burning sideways across the street to more homes.
Custodio wrote that Karns' management of the Oak Knoll fire showed clear objectives and highly effective coordination with the air operations that were part of the fire attack.
At a minimum, fire personnel from Ashland Fire & Rescue, Jackson County Fire District No. 5 and Medford's fire department were part of the initial ground attack on the Oak Knoll fire, according to Karns' accounts of the early response.
Custodio credited Karns with recognizing the need for more help and summoning other fire departments. In total, 16 fire departments and fire agencies responded to the Washington and Oak Knoll fires.
"The mutual aid system worked," he said.
Custodio said the water system provided all the water that was needed for fire suppression.
Karns, who warned the Ashland Citizens' Budget Committee in the spring that Ashland Fire & Rescue has some fire hoses that are three decades old, said the department's hoses were adequate for the task. The Budget Committee agreed to a small property tax increase to gradually replace hoses and firefighters' protective clothing.