ASHLAND, Ore. – A wind-whipped wildfire ripped through the outskirts of this southern Oregon college and tourist town Tuesday, igniting a string of homes one after the other, setting off explosions and sending up "tornadoes" of black smoke, fire officials and a resident said.
When the flames were finally controlled around dusk, 11 homes were destroyed and two others damaged in the Oak Knoll neighborhood east of Interstate 5.
Residents along four streets in the neighborhood of 1970s-era homes were evacuated. No injuries were reported, city Fire Marshal and Division Chief Margueritte Hickman said. A shelter was set up for displaced residents.
Cindy and Matt Walker were home getting ready to go on vacation when they saw homes across the street catching fire one after the other.
Cindy Walker got a phone call from a friend who saw smoke. "I looked out, and the sky was just burning," she said. "Right across the street it was on fire."
She called 911.
"Immediately a second house ignited, and then a third while I was on a line to dispatch," Cindy Walker said. "Then I hung up and started to water my yard and neighbors' houses, 'til the Fire Department showed up.
"It was just inferno — black smoke, RV, things blowing up, gas tanks, tires," she said. "Propane tanks, I don't know. It sounded like bombs going off. Like tornados of black smoke coming out of garages and backyards."
Firefighters were busy across the freeway battling a six-acre grass fire that destroyed two shacks, a trailer and an old barn when they got the call that flames were running up a grassy hill and igniting a line of homes, said Hickman.
Firefighters and engines from two counties rushed to the neighborhood and started dousing homes, said Dennis Keife, chief of Lake Creek Rural Fire Department.
"It was just surround and drown," he said. Two helicopters also responded and dropped water on the blaze.
Hickman said officials have not yet determined the fire's cause and were unsure whether it was two fires or one that jumped the freeway on the edge of Ashland, which has a population of about 21,000 and is best known as home to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
"The wind was pretty strong," she said.
Cindy Walker said many people have stopped watering their lawns and landscaping due to drought conditions and the high price of city water. That may have contributed to the dry conditions that fueled the fire, she said.
Hickman added some of the burned homes had shake roofs, which ignite easily.
"We are in extreme fire danger," said Hickman, noting some of the landscaping close to homes could have contributed to them catching fire. "The reason we have restrictions are fires like this."
By dark, a line of burned homes stretched along the freeway side of the street, some gutted and some burned to the ground, flames still burning the interiors. Cars sped by on the freeway behind them.
"It looks like a war zone has gone through here," said District Fire Marshal Don Hickman, Margueritte Hickman's husband.
He said officials had boosted the numbers of firefighters on duty due to the hot, dry weather, with temperatures around 100 degrees.
At the end of the street, Ellen Carey waited for permission to look at the homes of her two daughters. One was destroyed, and the other, across the street, was still standing.
The daughter whose home was destroyed, Michelle Ogier, was camping with her husband and daughter and decided not to return right away.
"They are in shock," Carey said after calling them with the news. "It is terrible. It's awful. Hopefully I can walk up and see if anything is there. At least no people died."