Oak Knoll firewall hits ODOT roadblock

The Oregon Department of Transportation will not build a fire wall between Interstate 5 and the Oak Knoll neighborhood, where a fire destroyed 11 homes in August, officials said Monday.

The fire victims have been pushing for a wall since they started rebuilding their homes on Oak Knoll Drive, because they fear a repeat of the Aug. 24 fire.

“We want a concrete wall there because we all have a fear that next summer someone's going to throw a cigarette on the ground and this could happen again,” said Dan Thomas, who owns Circle T Construction and is rebuilding his family's home and another home on the block.

The state only builds walls to buffer sound — not fire — when it expands highways and when sound studies show that walls are warranted, said Jerry Marmon, ODOT district manager for southwestern Oregon.

“We're very sympathetic to what happened there in the Oak Knoll neighborhood,” he said. “But we don't build fire-protection walls. The only walls we build are sound walls and those are typically associated with modernization projects where we're increasing lanes and capacity.”

ODOT is currently widening the bridge over Exit 14, but is not widening the freeway, so the location doesn't warrant a sound wall, Marmon said.

At the request of some of the Oak Knoll victims, Pete Cislo, owner of Leave Your Mark, a landscaping supply company in Phoenix, put together a proposal for the wall to give to ODOT in November.

He said he used his connections in the landscaping design business to secure a bid of $13.40 per square foot for the wall, down about $2 a square foot from the lowest proposal, a savings of about $14,000. At that price, the entire wall would cost about $93,000 to build, he said.

Cislo calculated that a concrete wall extending behind all the houses that burned should be roughly 900 feet long, 8 feet high and 8 inches thick, he said.

ODOT told Cislo it didn't need to look at his proposal because a wall was not planned for that location, he said.

“I feel badly that it didn't work out,” he said. “I thought for sure I'd be able to leverage something for them.”
Marmon said fires that start from cigarettes or broken-down cars on the side of the freeway usually are small and don't spread quickly.

“They're typically very small, very slow-growing fires,” he said. “We keep the grass mowed there to reduce the fire hazard.”

Fueled by strong winds and low humidity, the Oak Knoll fire started in a brush field near Washington Street, consumed an abandoned barn and jumped the freeway, igniting the 11 houses within minutes. Firefighters have said that embers from where the fire began, on the other side of Interstate 5, were traveling 1,400 feet in the air, and easily could have ignited other homes in the area.

“We're not going to be able to build a wall adjacent to both sides of the freeway that's high enough to prevent conditions like those on that day,” Marmon said.

However, the fire victims say building a wall could at least help slow the spread of another potential fire and might save homes from igniting like candles, one after another.

“Are we going to have this string of mishmash fences back there again?” Thomas said. “It doesn't seem smart to build a wooden fence again.”

A wall would help bring peace of mind to some of the fire victims, said Rick Ogier, who lost his home to the fire.

“My 9-year-old daughter has said she won't move back with a wooden fuse facing the freeway,” he said.

The homeowners could pitch in to build the wall themselves on their property, but the cost likely would prove prohibitive for some, Thomas said. They also would likely need to secure a planning department variance, a potentially time-consuming process.

Gary Leaming, ODOT spokesman, encouraged the residents to consider working with the city to build the wall themselves.

“ODOT is not opposed to the construction of a wall on private property, adjacent to our property,” he said. “It's something for the adjacent property owners and city to work on, because we won't build a fire wall there. We have hundreds of miles of commercial and residential areas on our freeways and if we were to build a fire wall, I'm not sure how we would stop.”

Contact reporter Hannah Guzik at 541-708-1158 or hguzik@dailytidings.com.

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