Ashlander describes epic blaze

Michael Dawkins remembers Aug. 8, 1959, like it was yesterday. Climbing a tree near his family home, he hopped onto his garage and watched Ashland's hills burn.

"There were these wisps of smoke coming out over toward Jackson Hot Springs," Dawkins recalled by his home, the same one he grew up in. "By 4:30, the entire hillside was lit up."

He had a front row seat to one of the town's most spectacular natural disasters, a massive wildfire that scorched the Ashland watershed, and left some residents fearing for their lives. Just one hour after the fire was reported, more than 100 men had been called to the scene.

"Nothing ever had come close to the intensity of this," Dawkins said. "People had no idea where it would stop."

An estimated 5,000 acres of forestland were reduced to ash before order was restored.

"I sat there all night on top of the car port and looked directly into the fire," he said.

Dawkins now serves on the city planning commission. With a background in horticulture and landscaping, and a lifetime of familiarity with the land, few better understand the impact of that fire. Standing outside his home, he can see out over Lithia Park, toward the hills to the south and west of town. There he recalls how the fire crept upwards, deeper into the watershed.

"It wasn't like the whole thing went up right away, but you could just see it progress," he said.

He also noted the lasting impact that fire had on the area's plant life.

"When you walk into it now, there are very few evergreens," he said.

More than 400 firefighters and National Guardsmen were needed before the blaze could be subdued. And all the while, Dawkins sat atop the carport, watching it unfold.

"It went all night," he said. "It seemed like two or three in the morning when (firefighters) weren't quite as panicked."

Dawkins spends plenty of days around the trails and creeks making up Ashland's watershed. He jogs by, identifying plants and trees, and evaluating the extent of the damage done.

"For a 13 year old it was very exciting," he said. "That's kind of the paradox of the whole thing."

At a recent Ashland High School reunion, many alumni could not help but recall — with equal parts wonderment and horror — the fiery drama that unfolded 50 years ago, according to Dawkins

"This was talked about for so many years afterwards," Dawkins said. "It was like the whole hill had just exploded."

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