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Oregon wildfires: Firefighter recounts running out of water during wild 36-hour battle to save homes

Firefighter Brian Weidman was summoned to a grass fire near Ashland that was threatening some homes on Sept. 8, one blustery day after Labor Day.

He figured it might take a few hours to put out the flames before heading back north to his fire station in nearby Phoenix.

It’d be more like 36 hours before he called it a day. And by then, there was no fire station to return to. The Almeda fire had burned through Jackson County Fire District No. 5′s Fire Station No. 3 — plus more than 2,800 structures, ravaging the towns of Phoenix and Talent as well as parts of Medford and Ashland. Three people are known to have died, in addition to six others statewide.

“It moved faster than any other fire I’ve ever been on,” said Weidman, a captain and a firefighter of 10 years. “It was an intense fire fight that lasted for many, many hours.

“With limited resources and eventually lack of water,” he added, “it was a very, very difficult thing to manage.”

Weidman’s story is just one of a number that are emerging from the aftermath of one of the most devastating fires to hit Oregon during its most devastating wildfire season in modern-day history. Weidman was one of the first responders who waged a hard-fought battle to save home after home, building after building, along a 13-mile-long stretch of landscape running parallel to Interstate 5 in southern Oregon.

While trying to extinguish that initial Ashland grass fire Sept. 8, Weidman said he and his colleagues looked up and saw a massive column of smoke off in the distance from another fire and they knew a catastrophic event was underway.

Next, Weidman and one other firefighter responded to a burning house in rural Ashland. He rushed inside and yelled as he tried to determine if anyone was in danger, but with flames shooting out of the second story and smoke enveloping the first floor, he had to quickly retreat.

Weidman said he’s entered many burning buildings in his career but, as a matter of safety protocol, only with a partner and a hose spraying water in front of him. Typically, five fire engines respond to a residential fire, with plenty of personnel to drag him out if he gets in trouble.

That Tuesday, there was only one fire truck with only one other firefighter and Weidman alone inside the burning house with no hose to spray a path in front of him.

“Every crew that worked that day did things that were unsafe,” Weidman said. “It was just part of what we had to do. There’s no getting around it.”

While the first house was a total loss, Weidman and his partner were able to save the next house that they rushed to from catching on fire. The flames had been approaching it.

“This went on all night long,” Weidman said. “We used all of our hose, thousands and thousands of gallons of water. We tried to save anything we could.”

Within a few hours, he and his partner had run out of air tanks for their respirators and were breathing in the heavy, choking smoke. Eventually, they were out of water. For 24 hours, they ate only a few granola bars stashed in their truck, before someone brought them some burritos.

When Weidman finally called it one long day and returned to his home in Central Point, he dived into yard work — trimming any trees or bushes that might put his home at greater risk of catching fire.

After clearing flammable vegetation away from his home, he spent time with his family, who’d just returned. The day before, his wife had packed up the family photos and their children — ages 6 and 8, with stuffed animals in tow — before evacuating to their grandparents’ house for one night. The family’s neighborhood had been declared a level 2 “Be set” evacuation zone.

Their home ultimately survived untouched.

But Weidman’s fire station was destroyed. So was Puck’s Donuts, the Phoenix Motel, homes at Bear Lake Estates and many others in the 4,500-resident community of Phoenix. Just a few minutes’ drive to the north, huge swaths of industrial businesses, the Flywheel Bicycle Solutions shop, Simple Machine Winery and more homes were burnt in 6,600-resident Talent.

Oregon wildfires

The remains of Puck’s Donuts, a local landmark, in Phoenix, OR, on Thurs., Sept. 10, 2020. The southern Oregon towns of Phoenix and Talent were devastated by the Almeda Fire. Thousands have been told to evacuate because of the fire, which was fed by strong winds and high temperatures. Dave Killen / Staff – Wildfire destruction in Phoenix and Talent, OR Dave KillenDave Killen

Aided by winds, the fire worked through the towns in a haphazard patchwork fashion skipping some properties while leveling others. In all, 3,200 acres burned.

“Physically, I’m fine,” Weidman said. “But mentally, I’m still exhausted because of the gravity of everything that happened in the community I serve.”

Wildfire tracker: See all fires in Oregon and across the nation

— Aimee Green: [email protected]; @o_aimee

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