13 Hours: The Almeda Fire Story

This is a special presentation of Medford Alert. We gathered nearly 100 tweets from our timeline on September 8, 2020. That’s the day the Rogue Valley exploded into flames. Beginning at 11:21am, the below story chronicles the events as they happened.

We began the day of September 8th, 2020 with an important alert regarding the days potential fire danger. The National Weather Service in Medford had issued a Red Flag Warning for our metro. That’s the highest level of warning given by the NWS. Triple digit heat, dry conditions, and high winds were the forecast for the day.

Our first alert went out at 11:21am. Emergency Communications of Southern Oregon (ECSO) called out a report of a small, but fast moving grass fire in north Ashland. Immediately, additional structure protection units were ordered due to the known Red Flag Warning issued.

NOTE: Many of the alerts state the fire as “Glendower Fire”. This was due to the early stages of the incident not being officially named yet. We created that tag (#GlendowerFire) to allow the community to follow the fast changing events more easily. Later on, authorities officially designated the fire as “Almeda Drive Fire” or “Almeda Fire” for short.

Three minutes after the first dispatch, there was a stunning update from ECSO that two nearby homes had ignited. The small grass fire was now being whipped up by winds of up to 40mph at the time. These were the first of nearly 2500 homes to be lost in this fire.

At 11:33am, Fire Command sent out an urgent call for additional resources. Fire crews from around the metro began to assemble. Medford Fire (MFD) sent a specialized structure response crew. The Oregon Department of Forestry (ODF) had two helicopters in the sky in under 20 minutes. But the wind fueled fire was racing north, consuming dry vegetation and structure by structure.

Scanner traffic was a nonstop call out of structure fire after structure fire. As additional air units were scrambled, metro police agencies focused on staying out in front of the fire to literally go door to door and evacuate residents. The fire moved so fast, some areas went straight to a Level 3 (Go Now) evacuation notice.

The fire had made its way into the I5 Exit 19 interchange area. This was just about 30 minutes since first call out. The fire was moving north, a mile every ten minutes at that point. I5 traffic was a mess of vehicles attempting to escape the flames, normal traffic, and emergency personnel trying to access the fire.

The Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) had decided to close all northbound and soundbound lanes on I5 from Exit 24 (Talent) south to Exit 19 (N.Ashland). The sheer number of vehicles stuck so close to the fire caused some drivers to attempt to turn around on the freeway. This created even more gridlock and added to a number of panicked drivers calling into ECSO for help. Eventually, Fire crews and first responders had to drive the opposite way on the 5 in order to try and get into their positions.

This call out for assistance was one of the first major undertakings for emergency personnel. Trying to move 40+ elderly residents in such a tight timeframe seemed heartbreakingly unlikely. However, with the help of a nearby Rogue Valley Transportation District (RVTD) bus and several law enforcement officers, all residents and staff were evacuated and saved.

Listening to this unfold live was gut wrenching. In 10 years of doing this, very few radio calls have hit me this hard. He had driven up a steep driveway to make sure the area houses were evacuated and empty. After successfully navigating one of the residents out, he went to check on the remaining houses. They were thankfully empty. But the fire had closed in on his car to the point where visibility was nearly gone. The winds continued to push the flames closer to his location. Immediately after his mayday call, ECSO had an loaded ODF helicopter redirected to conduct a water drop in order to try and save the Trooper and give him a way out. More on him in a bit.

This fire is now just over an hour old as in continues to mercilessly rip northward on a direct path towards Talent.

It was all hands on deck for metro agencies. While firefighters were fighting the flames of structure fire after structure fire, various police agencies were evacuating surprised residents well to the north of the fire itself. Fire command knew that this fire was nearly unstoppable in the conditions that day. ODF scrambled ground crews to assist metro fire departments. But there simply were not enough personnel or equipment to slow down the fire as it continued to move towards the city of Talent.

Twenty minutes after the Trooper called in a mayday, we finally received confirmation he was ok. He continued to assist in evacuations as the day went on. That one piece of good news was quickly brushed aside as ODOT shut down the entirety of I5 at Exit 27 (South Gateway Area Medford). The freeway was now closed to the California border for all non-emergency traffic. In just over 70 minutes, the fire had completely shut down 27 miles of a major freeway through the heart of the Valley.

In preparation of a possible mass evacuation of Medford and Central Point, ODOT moved the I5 shutdown north, to the Exit 30 interchange (North Medford/Highway 62). The cities have over 100k residents combined, it was a priority to allow northward movement if the need presented itself. About 90 minutes after the fire began, southbound traffic on the 5 was at a standstill, backing up for over 10 miles.

The conditions first responders were dealing with were later described as “the perfect storm”. Only this storm was a wall of fast moving flames aimed directly at the nearly 12k residents of Talent and Phoenix.

With the rapid northern movement of the fire, Medford Fire made the tough call to keep the remaining personnel in the city to protect the largest urban area of the Valley. They began staging in key southern areas of the city and started evacuations.

More and more throughout the fight, resources were running out. ODOT was attempting to navigate the thousands of stranded motorists off I5, while also closing 30 miles of freeway. Numbers of metro police units came to assist in the closure of the freeway.

The fire was simply unstoppable. By 2p, the Almeda flames has reached all the way to mile marker 23 on I5 after cutting through the outskirts of Talent and nearby Phoenix. Unfortunately, both cities were in for a long night. Another desperate call went out to help evacuate over 130 residents of a retirement complex. First responders once again sprang into action and ended up saving all the residents.

Call after call of houses on fire. It was hard to really grasp the magnitude of the destruction. With I5 closed and gridlocked, officials now closed OR99 through the heart of Phoenix and Talent as the flames marched closer. Conditions were nearly impossible to fathom. Nine miles south, The Expo was activated as an emergency shelter for evacuees.

The entire cities of Phoenix and Talent were now on a Level 3 GO NOW evacuation notice. The notice spread as far north as Barnett Rd in South Medford. Tens of thousands had to leave homes, businesses, hotels and apartments immediately. The entire population of Jackson County was on at least a Level 1 notice.

In a brilliant move, officials opened up all southbound lanes of OR99 for northbound evacuation traffic only. This was utilized as far north as the Big X Interchange in NW Medford. Just after 4p, the stunning alert came out that Jackson County Emergency Services was requesting all 223k+ residents off of area streets.

Many Medford residents were beginning to feel uneasy about the fires movement towards the city. Throughout the day, the smoke kept growing darker as more and more southern suburbs were evacuated. The fire plume cast a frightening shadow over much of downtown Medford in the afternoon.

At 7:34p, officials activated a Level 2 evacuation order for all of downtown Medford, along with nearly the entire west side of the city. The fire was not slowing down as the winds continued to drive it northwards. The world was now watching our valley burn live. This single tweet have over 500k impressions alone, from all around the world.

Fire crews had to make split second decisions on what they could save and what they had to let go of. The fire had moved nearly 8 miles over the course of the day. It wasn’t stopping, winds weren’t stopped, but neither were the brave first responders of our valley. They kept fighting.

Arial attacks continued throughout the day. They certainly helped, but they don’t fly went it’s dark. It was a race against the clock to get as much retardant laid down as possible.

Just before 8p, the call was made to shut down all air support for the night. Tired and exhausted grounds crews were now on their own to defeat a monster made of fire and heat. To add to many residents stress, the evacuation site at the Jackson County Expo had reached capacity. Those looking for a safe place to gather themselves would now have to head over to the neighboring Josephine County Fairgrounds for relief.

The night sky glowed with the burning sites of home’s and businesses being consumed. Winds were still unusually strong for nighttime. The scanner was as active as ever as the fire rolled through downtown Talent and proceeded up the OR99 corridor into Phoenix.

There’s no stopping a hurricane. And this was a fire based hurricane for all purposes. With hydrants running dry from pressure losses, and constant explosions of propane tanks, ammunition, and other flammable items, firefighters were in a literal war zone that night.

Before the night ended, crews knew the losses would be staggering. The weather report for the next day was just as bad temperature wise. The winds were a bit calmer, late that night, but most of the damage was done. Phoenix and Talent had taken massive losses.

Just before 1:00am, I signed off. My mind was filled with dread and worse case scenarios of what the next few days would bring. I was certain the lose of lives would be in the hundreds, if not thousands. The fire was just too fast, too hot, those residents in the affected area were mostly older and couldn’t get out in time.

The first official report was shocking. The Almeda Fire had affected over 42k residents. Over 16k homes were threatened. At its peak, nearly 200 firefighters battled against it. Unfortunately, these numbers were just the start.

Weeks after the fire was officially contained, we learned Almeda has destroyed approximately 2500 homes and 200 businesses. Due to the absolute heroism of local first responders, the loss of life was far less then originally feared. However, three people lost their lives to the Almeda flames on September 8th.

Donald Schmidt

Violet Lodbell

Derrick Glenn Mills

Our hearts go out to all those who were affected in any way by the tragic events of September 8th. Our valley is strong, caring, generous, and resilient. As work continues to rebuild the structures and homes lost, we won’t forget about the countless story’s of bravery and selflessness by our fellow residents that day.

Many lessons were learned in the aftermath of the Almeda Fire. From the emergency response standpoint, to the way we will rebuild and make changes to further fireproof new neighborhoods.

My biggest takeaway from after the fire, was the overwhelming support of locals for their fellow citizen. From food and clothes drives, to local restaurants making food and delivering it to fire victims free of charge. Countless valley residents donated time, energy, money, and anything needed to strangers who had lost everything.

One important note is that September 8, 2020 was also the start of the South Obenchain Fire near Butte Falls. That fire would eventually cause the evacuation of several north metro cities and destroyed nearly a hundred structures, while scorching over 32k acres. We want to take a moment to recognize all those that were affected by that tragedy as well.

So on this anniversary of the Almeda Fire, we look back at that dark days events, but we know there is light in front of us. We are in this together, #ForTheValley

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