It was a 105-degree day, just after lunch, 50 years ago on Aug. 8, 1959, when two arson fires were set in the dry grass above the railroad tracks by Jackson Hot Springs, near Highway 99 and South Valley View Road.
The fire took hold quickly and, driven by steady winds and four days of triple-digit heat, began climbing through the Ashland Mine Road area and toward Wrights Creek canyon, sending up a giant plume of smoke and pulling in hundreds of firefighters and 14 flights by borate-dropping planes.
By nightfall, the blaze had traveled the five miles to the western crest of the Ashland watershed — and thousands of awed townsfolk watched as a giant smoke plume climbed high into the sky and big firs and pines exploded in the dark. Would it burn down into the town? No one would know till morning.
On instructions from the Ashland Fire Chief, who wanted to keep people out of the traffic, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival went on with its production of "Antony and Cleopatra," retired Festival Executive Director Bill Patton said.
"It was a terrible conflagration. The trees exploded like Roman candles in the intense heat. The wind was blowing. It was amazing. We'd turn and look at the audience and here were a thousand faces, cherry red, reflecting the flames," Patton said.
The actors playing both Antony and Cleopatra were visiting Ashland, staying in the motor court then located in Lithia Park, recalls his wife, actress Shirley Patton, "and when they left for the theater, they took their precious things with them. But the fire stopped at the crest."
The first Elizabethan Stage, which had become a fire hazard, had been torn down and rebuilt for the 1959 season, which was also Oregon's centennial. It had opened for its five-week run only 12 days earlier.
"We wondered if it would all be destroyed. The paint was still wet." said Shirley Patton, who was on stage that night. "There was a pervasive buzz from the fire and the people fighting it, a sort of sound in the atmosphere."
Bill Patton, who was selling tickets that evening, said actors would go on the back deck of the Elizabethan Stage to watch the blaze and fire-fighting helicopters based on Ridge Road — almost missing some curtain calls.
Former Ashland City Councilwoman and former Greenway Director Karen Smith, an Ashland native, was 16 and selling chess pies at the Festival.
"It was so odd to be in the back of the performance, while the fire dominated the play. It was very scary," says Smith. "It crosses my mind to this day, how scared we were. It helped the community understand the importance of vegetation in the watershed."
As flames crackled overhead, the crowd heard Cleopatra say, in her dying words at play's end, "I am fire and air! My other elements I give to baser life!"
In a 1979 reminiscence of the fire, U.S. Forest Service rangers Harold "Red" Thomas and Howard Hopkins wrote, "All the elements of a good news story were there: unusual public visibility, high drama, extreme potential for vast damage, far beyond the 3,800 acres actually burned, great public concern, valiant efforts to control and cooperation beyond any expectation from all elements of the community."
An hour-by-hour account says the blaze was first reported at 12:45 p.m. by Oregon Department of Forestry's Soda Mountain Lookout. Two four-man crews were called in at 1:03 and borate bombers at 1:30, when it had spread to 20 acres. By 1:50, some 125 men had been hired and four bulldozers put into action.
The weather could hardly have been worse. Winds were 10 to 15 mph, humidity was 11 percent and it was 105 degrees. Borate bombers slowed the fire "only slightly" that afternoon, wrote Thomas.
Winds increased that Saturday afternoon to 25 to 30 mph and by 6 p.m., says Thomas, the fire "blew up."
Henry Kneebone, 88, who has lived on Orchard Street all his life, said the fire "really burst through there. I lost 40 acres. We were scared, didn't like it at all. Dad and I were eating dinner and we saw the smoke boiling up (from the direction of Ashland Mine Road) and I said 'that doesn't look good.' The Forest Service wasn't getting a handle on it."
There were many spontaneous acts of community spirit that night. Thomas told his wife to get flashlights for crews. She got a local radio station to broadcast the need and, as the flashlights poured in, she identified them by name. After the blaze, with help from the staffs of Ashland police and the Daily Tidings, these were all returned.
City Administrator Elmer Biegel volunteered use of Lithia Park for fire camps, supplying toilets, water and staging for 300 men. The Twin Plunges gave firefighters free showers, swimming suits and towels.
The fire seared up Wrights Creek and the ridge above it (atop Strawberry Lane), a few yards south of the Kneebone home, driven by prevailing up-canyon northwest winds, he says.
One Forest Service crew reported a "narrow escape "¦ being run out of Strawberry Lane when the fire spotted over them," Thomas wrote. Fire spotted to Granite and Grandview streets.
In the hours before midnight, backfires were started behind the homes along Ashland Creek.
Thomas remembered having hiked a firebreak that the WPA had built in 1934 along the ridge bordering the watershed, going as far up as the Skyline Mine Road. He sent a Caterpillar in to that steep locale to clear the firetrail, and backfires were started by 4 a.m.
It was a sudden shift of wind during the night that helped save the 14,000-acre watershed, Kneebone said.
"It was about midnight, the wind changed and started coming from the south. That stopped the fire," he said.
The Mail Tribune on Sunday reported, "The blaze treated area residents to a horribly thrilling display as a dense, multi-colored cloud of smoke covered southern skies. The vast pillars that thrust like an atomic cloud thousands of feet in the air Saturday evening was a sight no words or photographs can really describe. Its flames were a brilliant pink nearly to the top, where a crown of pure white glistened in the sun."
"The next morning, there was so much smoke you couldn't see anything," Kneebone said. "At daybreak, seven Cats came up Strawberry Lane. Four went one way and three the other way and they started mopping it up."
On the second day, winds had died down and the temperature had dropped by 10 degrees. Crews struggled to put out hundreds of snags and down logs, so the blaze wouldn't take off again, but realized it would take days to drive tankers up the steep, narrow roads to high elevations.
Thomas remembered the Skyline Gold Mine had been plagued with seepage and was full of water. Crews pumped 300,000 gallons out of the mine and brought final control to the Jackson Hot Springs Fire late Sunday.
The cost of fighting the fire was put at $100,000 ($725,000 in today's money), with $75,000 in lost timber value. The Tidings on Monday reported ODF had 300 men on the fire and USFS had 375.
A lot of second-growth conifer forest was lost, Kneebone said. The fire-killed timber was salvage logged and the steep slopes were seeded to restrict erosion. Steeper slopes were terraced.
"They did try to reforest with conifer," said Marty Main, Consulting Forester with Small Woodland Services of Ashland. "Reforestation wasn't that good in 1959. Hardwoods and shrub dominate the site now. Today, you've got plants that like wildfire. Lots of madrone. They think fire is great."
The fire didn't burn any homes — only a few sheds and barns in the Ashland Mine Road area, but, said Main, "there are tons of homes in that area today."
No suspects in the arson were ever arrested, but Kneebone says it was common knowledge that "two little kids were playing with matches. They figured out who did it. Their mother wasn't watching them."