Chief: Neighborhood barely escaped deaths

Ashland Fire & Rescue Chief John Karns revealed more details of last week's fire — noting that deaths and more damage were barely avoided — during a tense Oak Knoll neighborhood meeting Wednesday.

The 50 residents at the meeting, held at the Oak Knoll Golf Course, expressed concern over the fire danger in the neighborhood and called on city officials to enact ordinances that would allow fire-proof walls to be constructed alongside Interstate-5 and would outlaw shake roofs and other flammable building materials.

"My family says they may not come back unless they have a safer wall there," said Rick Ogier, whose home at 835 Oak Knoll Drive burned in the fire.

Mayor John Stromberg said city officials would look into the possibility of enacting such ordinances and would present a report to the City Council on the matter in the coming weeks.

"This is going on our list," he said. "These are all good questions."

At the 7 p.m. meeting, Karns gave a detailed overview of the emergency response to the fire.

Two Ashland Police officers, Steve MacLennan and Bon Stewart, likely saved the lives of several Oak Knoll residents by evacuating them during last week's fire, before any other emergency personnel, including firefighters, were on scene, he said.

"They probably did save people's lives," Karns said. "The fire was jumping from structure to structure at such a rate that if there had been someone watching TV or taking a nap, I don't know if they would have gotten out."

The fire raging on the west side of Oak Knoll Drive, where 11 houses were decimated, almost jumped across the street — and if it had, it's likely 30 additional houses would have burned, Karns said.

He was minutes away from calling firefighters away from the front-lines, because the heat and smoke were extremely dangerous and the firefighter's oxygen tanks were running out, he said. Firefighters were able to stay in the immediate area and prevent the fire from crossing Oak Knoll Drive because water-dropping helicopters made precision drops on the fire, cooling the area, Karns said.

Embers from where the fire began, on the other side of Interstate-5, were traveling 1,400 feet in the air, and could have easily ignited other homes in the area, said Chris Chambers, forest resource specialist with Ashland Fire & Rescue.

Chambers called on the residents to remove flammable debris from their yards and consider installing fire-resistant roofing and siding on their homes.

"We're still in the midst of fire season right now, so things can be done right now," he said. "A broom or a rake can do a lot of good today or tomorrow or this weekend."

During a question and answer portion of the meeting, residents criticized Ashland Fire & Rescue for portions of its response to the fire, the county for not keeping a closer eye on dry grass in the area and the city for miscommunication over evacuation orders.

"We were in the dark for three hours, not knowing if we needed to evacuate," said neighborhood resident Ann Marie Hutson. "We were in communicative darkness. Our phone lines were out. Our TV was out."

Stromberg said the city is working to address the concerns brought up at the meeting.

"This was a tremendous event and we're going to stick with you through the whole process," he said.

City Councilors Carol Voisin and Greg Lemhouse also attended the meeting.

"This fire was a reminder of where we live and of one of our natural threats," said Lemhouse, who lives in the Oak Knoll neighborhood. "It's a reminder of just how fragile things can be and it's certainly sad that so many people lost so much."

Contact reporter Hannah Guzik at 541-482-3456 ext. 226 or

Oak Knoll Neighborhood Meeting

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