Fire stories

A police officer, an emergency response team volunteer, a Bellview Elementary School student, a ham radio operator, a contractor, an Ashland High School student: These are some of the people who lost homes in the Oak Knoll fire.

Each of the people who lived in the 11 decimated houses has his or her own story.

Liza Christian was trying to grab a pair of shoes when her windows blew out from the heat of the fire. She barely escaped.

David Gustafson was taking a nap when his wife, Danna, woke him up and said, "The house is on fire." They, too, escaped just in time.

Brady Thomas was at Ashland High School football practice when his parents came running onto the field to tell him that the smoke in the distance was coming from their house — and 10 others on their block.

Ashland Police Officer Jason Daoust was directing traffic on Oak Knoll Drive when he realized his home was among those consumed in flames. As his home burned, he continued to direct traffic and help his neighbors evacuate.

These are just a few of the stories from that fateful evening, when the worst fire in at least 100 years ripped through a neighborhood and the consciousness of the entire town.

On Wednesday morning I drove by the destruction again. The lots are still gray with ash. Chimneys, the only pieces left of some houses, stand against the rubble. Charred cars sit in driveways.

It's hard to believe people lived there nine days ago.

As a reporter, I spend a lot of time listening to people's stories and trying to tell them as best I can. Although all have their own story about the fire, there are phrases that many of the fire victims, neighbors and firefighters keep repeating:

"It's very sad."

When you stand and look at the destruction, it's hard to think about anything except how sad it is.

"It happened so fast."

It's amazing that everyone escaped from the fire uninjured. The blaze jumped the four-lane freeway within minutes of its ignition, and the houses burst into flames as though they were connected by a fuse.

"It could have been our house."

Living in Ashland means living with the threat of wildfire. The Oak Knoll fire was a grim reminder of the danger fires pose.

"We're thankful for what we have."

Fires are reminders of how fast the materials of our lives can disappear. But they also help us to realize that the materials are not our lives.

Every person in Ashland has a different story about the fire. Some saw the flames erupting in the distance or the towers of smoke in the air. Some felt the heat of the fire or splashes from the water-dropping helicopters. Some evacuated, and many know someone who did. And 11 families, tragically, have stories about losing their homes.

Like the soot-stained ground, the stories about the fire remain. From them, we patch together a narrative about what it means to survive a natural disaster — and where we should go from here. We learn, even if just for a day, that houses and possessions can be lost — burned — in an instant. We learn to reprioritize.

We learn that if we're going to live close together, in communities bordering the forests, we have to protect each other. Not only do we need to do all we can to prevent fires from spreading rapidly, we also need to support each other when these disasters occur.

We learn that in order to protect the physical environment, we must also protect the psychological landscape. People have a tendency to transfer stress onto their environments.

We learn to listen to the stories about the fire. "As the victims tell their stories, they begin to lose their power over them," said Ashland Fire & Rescue chaplain Mark Anderson.

And as we hear the stories, they become part of all our stories. They become a part of Ashland's story.

This happened to our town. "And look at us," Christian said. "We survived."

And, in time, in our own ways, we will move on. But we will carry these stories with us.

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

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