Residents in the smoky shadow of the Klamathon fire have been living with a combination of uncertainty and dread ever since the blaze took off Thursday in northern California and began its march north toward the Oregon border.
“It was a nightmare Thursday and Friday,” said Renee Mollan-Masters, who lives on Old Highway 99, just below Callahan’s Restaurant. “We were so scared. Ashes, leaves, chunks of wood on fire were all coming down like rain “It’s so much better now, but I put a plan in my head about what to take if they give us Level 3 (‘Go’) evacuation. Right now, we’re sitting and we’re waiting.”
The Colestin Valley, some 23 miles south of Ashland, was under under a Level 3 mandatory evacuation until Monday evening, but Steve Avgeris, chief of Colestin Rural Fire Department estimated 60 percent of valley residents ignored the order.
“People are very independent down here,” said Avgeris. “I hope that works for them. Until the fire is out, anything can go wrong at any time. It makes you real nervous, especially if we have to bring fire equipment in and people are trying to get out on this one lane road with lots of curves and only two ways out.”
However, Avgeris said, the situation has greatly improved since Saturday.
“... We’re very optimistic,” he said. “They’ve got a fire line all the way around it and are mopping up, but they expect erratic winds (late Monday).”
Colestin resident Tod Davies had multiple reasons for concern as the fire blew up.
“I was running on adrenaline when our dog Pearl and I evacuated,” Davies said. “I was mainly worried about my husband (Alex Cox) who stayed behind to help defend the valley. I didn’t get much sleep that night, but hung out with another neighbor, whose husband was also fighting the fire.”
Residents of the Greensprings area on Highway 66 were also in nail-biting mode early on, but northwest winds predicted for Monday afternoon arrived and blew the smoke away, said artist-naturalist Deb Van Poolen, who lives on private land within the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument, 22 miles east of Ashland. On Friday, she put her valued artwork in her car and made a dash for it, banging up some of it.
“I recognized how I take things for granted,” she said. “It’s been an interesting roller-coaster of emotion. They said fire won’t come north into the monument, then maybe it will. There’s just no end to being cautious until the fire is out. Then you look at the high temperatures coming later this week and it’s very concerning. But I’m feeling relaxed now. I lived here in the early ’90s and never went through anything like this. It’s a reality check about what’s going on now, compared to 25 years ago.”
Highway 66 is on the northern edge of a Level 2 (get ready) evacuation.
Summer crews were busy at the Mt. Ashland Ski Area, which is not under mandatory evacuation, but General Manager Hiram Towle said they’ve laid out hose, have sprinklers going and are keeping a sharp eye on the plumes of smoke, which are five to eight miles away.
“CalFire has put in good lines, so it’s up to the wind,” Towle said. “The scenario we fear is fire coming from the Colestin Valley. But we hear the wind is shifting to the southwest tonight (Monday),” which would take it away from the ski area.
New metal roofs on the lodge, rental shop and equipment barn make them much safer from fire, he added.
Speaking from Incident Base in Yreka, Charles Handley, fire chief of District 5 in Talent said he is helping with five units for structure protection and evacuation planning.
“We’re preparing to see what happens when the predicted winds surface. They’ve brought in nine more air tankers and are preparing if something happens. Temperature is always a problem, but our biggest concern is if we get a marine flow, with moisture and lightning.”
Ashland Fire and Rescue Chief Mike D’Orazi said it’s highly unlikely Ashland would become vulnerable to the Klamathon blaze.
“We monitor it very closely and are in touch with (all agencies) and weather reports,” he says, “and we’re in a good spot. Obviously, there could be a change in weather and wind, but it would take days before an impact here.”
A Tidings request for comment on Facebook brought the following:
— Pegi Smith: “We live in the Colestin. We did evacuate the first night (Thursday, July 5). Packing only essentials and papers. ...The fires just looked overwhelming! Drove home the next day to see a fire had erupted south of us and heading over the ridge. We decided to stay and take action on the property, at least around the house and outbuildings, cutting limbs from trees and soaking as much as we could. Giving Thanks to everyone out there working together to help us stay safe!”
— Phyllis Brown: “My daughter & son in law have been notified of evacuation stage 2. They’ve loaded the car with things not replaceable, such as art. They have a good swimming pool, and some large cisterns. Sprinkler on the roof. Their 13 acres of fairly steep mountainside with oaks, madrone and a few pines, is maintained cleanly.”
—Harriet Berman: “The retirement community I live in has put us all on alert. We hope that we will not be in imminent danger, but I have packed essentials and emergency supplies just in case, and am keeping the gas tank full. I am feeling grateful that the wind has blown the fire away from us so far, but know that it could change.”
—Leslie Caplan: When fires are this close, it reminds me how very much we are at the mercy of nature, the whim of wind. We can only do what we can to prepare: I have gathered passports, important papers, some clothes, bottles of water, the cat carrier, etc and put them all by the front door. I keep a full tank of gas, a fully charged cell phone, and already have blankets and some other things in the car. I have to remind myself to stay calm. No matter what. Be prepared and move with clarity and calm because I imagine it can and will become chaotic, terrifying, beyond stressful. So I breathe. As deep and steady as possible .”
John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.