A northbound semitrailer, its brakes overheated from the long descent on Interstate 5 on a 107-degree afternoon, caught fire Wednesday evening and completely burned on the shoulder in exactly the same spot where the Oak Knoll fire took out 11 homes in 2010.
Units from Ashland Fire & Rescue and Fire District No. 5 took the blaze down in short order after the single-alarm fire was reported about 6 p.m. Firefighters looked for spotting in the nearby neighborhood, which had gained an 8-foot concrete wall along the freeway since the big blaze for exactly the danger that arose Wednesday.
“We had fire in just a little bit of grass (tall, dried grass) by the freeway, but it didn’t jump into Oak Knoll,” said Dave Meades, and engineer with Fire District 5. There was a “high probability” the fire was caused by hot brakes, he said, adding “That’s usually what does it — and the heat does make it worse.”
The driver confirmed the brakes caught fire. He said he was coming from Stockton, California, headed for Lacey, Washington, and his cargo was many hundreds of cases of wine. Firefighters used a backhoe to drag the smoking cargo off the truck bed, letting it smash onto the shoulder.
“I was coming down the hill and it just caught fire,” said the driver, Sokhon Kieust. “I got out. It was way too intense."
Homeowner Charmaine Rossi, who lives on Oak Knoll Drive immediately beside where the truck burned, said it brought back memories of the “scary” 2010 fire and how “volatile” and rapid fire can be. She said she and her family heard many explosions as the burning tires and gas tank burst.
“I was working downtown and got the text. I may have sped on East Main. It was a freaky thing. The driver was sitting in the cab with his earbuds on while it was burning and I shouted at him to get out. He did.”
Hearing about the thousands of bottles of burned wine, she joked, “That is the saddest thing I’ve heard in a long time.”
Her teen son, Aden Brown, who went through the 2010 fire, shot video of the event from the first moments and said, “It was so close, only about 12 feet from our yard, but it didn’t freak me out. My dad hosed everything down.”
Ashland Division Chief Chris Chambers, who was in charge of the effort, said the new concrete wall and the lack of vegetation since the big fire seven years ago “definitely was an enormous benefit. It kept the fire on this side (the freeway).”
As a lesson learned from the big Oak Knoll fire, Meades said firefighters were breathing from SCUBA tanks, and were required to take frequent breaks in the fresh air down the road. In the Oak Knoll fire, Battalion Chief Mark Burns suffered lung damage resulting in his death a few years later.
“In this heat, it really zaps your energy fast,” he said, “working with all that protective clothing on”
— Reach Ashland freelance writer John Darling at firstname.lastname@example.org.