12 hours inside Oregon’s Almeda Fire

Destructive wildfire exposes state’s need for more firefighting resources.

In Oregon last month, extreme weather was not the only factor firefighters faced. They were running out of resources.

On the morning of Sept. 8, a brush fire lurched to life in a dry brush field north of Ashland along Almeda Drive in southwest Oregon. Strong winds from the east pushed the fire north along a bike path parallel to Interstate 5, burning power poles, blackberry vines and eventually homes.

The National Weather Service had called for a red-flag wind warning, predicting gusts upward of 50 mph, which was bad news for Oregon fire officials. The state was already battling more than 10 other major incidents, exhausting state resources. In early September, both California and Oregon were in a state of drawdown, meaning they had no additional resources to dispatch.

Jackson County Fire District 5 Chief Charles Hanley was on a conference call with Oregon’s fire marshal to discuss resource availability.

“We were informed that there would be no resources available to us should we have a major event,” he said.

Moments later, Hanley received notification about a new fire in Ashland.

The Almeda Fire quickly roared to life. Winds carried embers hundreds of feet ahead of the fire line, starting spot fires and overwhelming suppression efforts.

The blaze shifted from a brush fire to an urban fire or, as Hanley describes it, “where the leaves meet the eaves.”

Jackson County firefighter Curt Ulrich was on the second day of his 48-hour shift when he was dispatched to Ashland. He was one of about 50 firefighters who fought the blaze that day, Hanley said.

As the fire pushed north, Ulrich was stationed along Talent Avenue, using the street as a fire break and trying to keep the flames from consuming the west side of town.

“Where that thing was burning was asphalt, driveways, homes, fire hydrants. It was burning through multiple downtown areas,” Ulrich said. “This was structure fire, after structure fire, after structure fire, over and over and over.”

Firefighters from Jackson County Fire District 5 provided The Washington Post with cellphone footage they shot during the first 24 hours of the fire. Thirty-foot-tall flames lay on their side, pushed by powerful winds, destroying entire neighborhoods.

Capt. Aaron Bustard was on the initial attack. He drove a water tender, a firetruck with a 2,000-gallon tank of water, to help suppression efforts in neighborhoods where fire hydrants were running dry.

“We did everything we could do to stop this thing, and we just couldn’t. There was nothing we could do,” he said.

Bustard joined Ulrich on Talent Avenue trying to hold the fire line before the engine of his tender caught fire. It was here where he was informed that no more resources would be sent to Talent Avenue.

“Probably around midnight, that’s when I felt most defeated. When I knew there was no help coming,” Bustard said. “We’re going to do what we can do, but it’s going to do what it’s going to do. There’s just no stopping it.”

The Almeda Fire stopped south of Medford, a city of 82,000 residents, when the winds eventually shifted. It burned more than 3,200 acres and destroyed 3,000 structures, including one of Fire District 5’s three firehouses.

Jackson County Fire District 5 relies on property taxes for their budget, which were affected by the fire’s destruction. The district started a crowdfunding campaign asking for nearly $1 million to help pay for a new firehouse and personnel.

“We can’t afford to lose personnel,” Bustard said. “We’ve always been told this is a high-risk area, but we don’t have the ability to meet the need if something like this happens again.”

Sarah Hashemi contributed to this report.

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