Bill Davis and his crew had their fire nearly contained, but a second fire they didn't know about was burning below them in the hills nearby.

Ashland's big wildfire 50 years ago nearly killed one crew of firefighters.

“We nearly lost 16 boys,” Bill Davis, a young crew boss in 1959, told the Mail Tribune in a 1999 interview.

Davis and his crew had their fire nearly contained, but a second fire they didn't know about was burning below them in the hills nearby.

“One of the boys looked up and said, ‘Look at that fire!'” Davis recalled. “The winds had picked up and it was headed right for us.

“We could hear it coming,” Davis recalled. “I looked for any exit I could see, but there weren't any. There was no choice but to go uphill.

“About 100 yards above us I saw this little cutbank with green grass in the ditch,” he said. “It was an old mining ditch and there was moving water in it.”

As the fire raced toward them, Davis told the firefighters to lie in the ditch and cover their heads with their hard hats.

“Some of the kids were crying,” Davis recalled. “One got up and was gonna try to outrun it. Another foreman and I grabbed him and put him back in the ditch.”

There wasn't much water in the ditch — maybe 3 or 4 inches — but the men's bodies raised the water level just enough to cover them with water when the flames roared up the hill and over the ditch.

“It sounded like about 10 locomotives coming at us,” Davis said. “All we could do was hope.”

The fire passed over them in seconds, but Davis said it seemed like an eternity. He kept the crew in the ditch, waiting for the ground to cool.

“We laid there in that ditch for a long time,” he said. “Every time somebody thought about getting up I said, ‘Stay down.' ”

Back at state forestry headquarters, everyone assumed the worst. People in the office were crying, Davis learned later. “They thought we'd burned up,” he said.

Davis said the crew probably survived only because there were no large trees in the area around them. If the fire had burned longer, it could have sucked all the oxygen out of the air around the men, suffocating them.