By Hannah Guzik
Ashland Daily Tidings
As soon as Dena Adame turned onto Oak Knoll Drive that afternoon, she realized something was wrong.
Above the one-story craftsman homes, smoke was swallowing up the sky. The sun was darkening. The air was growing thick.
Adame, an Ashland Fiber Network telecommunications technician, had just finished her last service call of the day, which, by coincidence or fate, was in the Oak Knoll neighborhood.
It was 4:47 p.m. on Aug. 24, and the Oak Knoll fire had just jumped Interstate 5 and was barreling toward homes.
In a matter of minutes, it would destroy 11 houses and damage three, becoming Ashland’s worst residential fire in at least a century. But first, four quick-thinking and fast-moving city employees — Adame, two police officers and a firefighter — would evacuate all the residents on the block.
Everyone would escape safely.
‘Get out! Get out!’
Adame turned her van onto Spring Creek Drive, the street that appeared closest to the plumes. Then she saw the fire. Flames were licking the grass near the backyards of houses in the 800 block of Oak Knoll.
“I ran up the side of the hill and saw the fire moving down the gully towards the row of houses,” she said. “It was moving fast. The wind was blowing pretty hard and it was very hot.”
She jumped back in her van and sped toward the fire, a few blocks away, as she called 9-1-1 on her cell phone. It was 4:48 p.m. Adame grabbed a hard hat and orange safety vest — her only emergency equipment — and turned toward the now 30-foot flames rearing over 815 Oak Knoll Drive.
She was already running because she could see the flames beginning to hug the house.
Adame pounded on the door of the home. She yelled for Christine Clark to get out, and she did, along with her dog.
Adame didn’t realize it then, but the house also belonged to Ashland Police Officer Jason Daoust. Minutes later, Daoust would arrive on the scene, discover that his house was engulfed in flames, and continue to evacuate neighbors as his home burned to the ground.
Next, Adame went to 805 Oak Knoll Drive, which was beginning to catch fire, and yelled for the residents to leave. Then she ran up the street and evacuated three more houses.
“I was knocking on doors and yelling, ‘Get out! Get out!’ The fire was moving so quick. Everybody was in panic mode, but I wasn’t really scared, because there wasn’t time to be,” said Adame, who served as a cable splicer in the U.S. Air Force, where she had fire evacuation training, 20 years ago.
Multiple houses on fire
Meanwhile, Officer Steve MacLennan was racing his motorcycle toward Oak Knoll Drive. Seconds earlier, as he was heading to the fire on the Washington Street side of Interstate 5, he had seen “huge chunks of fire” fly across the freeway and ignite dry grass near houses.
As MacLennan sped across Ashland Street, he passed Officer Bon Stewart and told him via radio to head to the neighborhood.
“I knew that it was going to be trouble and that we needed our resources there,” MacLennan said.
Stewart followed MacLennan to Oak Knoll Drive. “We never got dispatched over there,” Stewart said. “Steve saw the fire and we just went.”
At about the same time, over the police radio, came this message: “Please be advised we have a possible structure fire — no, a structure fire — at Oak Knoll.”
MacLennan and Stewart arrived seconds later. Chris Chambers, forest resource specialist with Ashland Fire & Rescue, arrived at the same time and hurriedly put on his firefighting gear. By Adame’s estimation, it was 4:50 p.m.
There were multiple houses on fire.
MacLennan told dispatch, “861 is fully engulfed and it looks like 873 is going to go up next.” The dashboard camera on his motorcycle captured the next few minutes of the hurried evacuations.
In the video, MacLennan’s voice is tense. The gravity of the situation is clear. People are still inside homes that are on fire.
Through the smoke, Adame, MacLennan, Stewart and Chambers can be seen running up and down the street, as they search for occupied homes. Somehow, as they run past each other, they manage to communicate which homes already have been evacuated — and which ones have not.
“You guys out?” MacLennan asks residents.
“825 is fully engulfed,” Stewart says seconds later.
“This whole area’s going up,” MacLennan tells a resident.
“I got two people in here,” someone tells MacLennan.
“OK, let’s get them out,” MacLennan says.
“You need to leave,” he tells the residents. “The houses are on fire around here. We need you to leave.”
The residents are trying to gather some belongings and find their cat.
“Do it real quick because the houses on the side of you are up in flames,” MacLennan says.
Dispatch asks him which house he’s evacuating and he says it’s not one house — but dozens. “We’re evacuating the 800 and 900 blocks of Oak Knoll,” he says.
Then, the house with two residents inside ignites. “You guys have to hurry up,” MacLennan says. “Your house is on fire.”
“It is?” a resident says.
“Yes, it is.”
After getting the residents and their cat in their car, MacLennan continues to check other homes. “Is everybody out? Everybody out of this house?” he asks.
Further up the street, Chambers was evacuating homes.
Danna and David Gustafson were readying to leave their home at 889 Oak Knoll Drive, but they couldn’t find the keys to their second car. Danna Gustafson was about to head back into her house — which was flanked by flames — when Chambers ran up.
“I was about to go back into the house and Chris hollered, ‘No, no! Get out! You have to leave now.’ And we left,” she said.
As the Gustafsons were preparing to drive away, Chambers asked them whether there was anyone else in the house. There wasn’t, so he went to the next house, Danna Gustafson remembered.
“I’m sure he saved some lives,” she said. “Going back in that house could have endangered my life. I would have gone back in there. And who knows if I would have succumbed to the smoke or the fire.”
Chambers said he doesn’t remember thinking about what he had to do — he just remembers doing it.
“It was obvious that houses were burning and it was obvious that getting people out of houses needed to happen now,” he said. “It was absolutely an emergency situation.”
Evacuating the block
Elsewhere on Oak Knoll, Stewart and Adame carried an elderly woman into a waiting car.
“There was this older lady, in her 80s, with a walker and she was going slow, so we just picked her up,” Adame said. “We needed to get her out of there.”
Flames were shooting across the street and the smoke was so thick you could taste it, Stewart said.
“We had cleared all the houses on the side of the street that burned and we started clearing the other side of the street,” Stewart said. “The fire was so hot and so big it seemed like that side was going to go next.”
They finished evacuating the block at 4:54 p.m., Adame calculated.
The four first responders, by their estimations, had evacuated 25 homes and dozens of residents in about six minutes.
“I was worried, because you couldn’t go back,” Adame said. “I was thinking, ‘Did we get them all out?'”
‘I’ll take care of you’
Fire engines, battling traffic on Ashland Street, would arrive at 5:01 p.m. Until then, Chambers stood on an empty lot on East Pebble Beach Drive, garden hose in hand, spraying down homes to try to stop the fire from spreading further.
“I realized there wasn’t an engine on that side and there were houses starting to catch on fire,” he said. “So I was doing the best I could to keep the fire down, spraying the roof with a garden hose.”
MacLennan tried to call every available police officer to Oak Knoll Drive. In the dashboard video, he can be heard several times asking dispatch and other police officials to call in extra officers.
“I need you to call any available units that we have,” he says. “You need to start going down the list and anybody you can get a hold of, tell them to get to work.”
At one point, MacLennan sees Daoust, who has just realized his home is gone.
“I’ll take care of you,” MacLennan says.
Meanwhile, Adame and Stewart continued to direct traffic and evacuate homes surrounding the 800 block of Oak Knoll Drive.
“It was so surreal,” Adame said. “We were like, ‘Do we need to keep going? How far is it going to spread?'”
After the evacuation was complete, and firefighters had a handle on the blaze, Adame brought Chambers a water bottle.
“It was very hot and smoky and I was dressed in turnouts with jeans underneath, and I was getting really dehydrated,” Chambers said. “Dena helped me out. She gave me a big bottle of water and I was very appreciative of that.”
Fire officials controlled the fire at 8:30 p.m. Chambers worked until 11 p.m. and returned to the scene at 6 a.m. the next day.
At an Oak Knoll neighborhood meeting a week after the fire, Ashland Fire Chief John Karns told attendees that it’s likely the first four responders saved residents’ lives by evacuating them so quickly.
“They probably did save people’s lives,” he said. “The fire was jumping from structure to structure at such a rate that if there had been someone watching TV or taking a nap, I don’t know if they would have gotten out.”
Last week, Karns said, as he reviewed the fire’s course, he remained grateful for the work Adame, MacLennan, Stewart and Chambers did.
“First and foremost, I’m thankful that they were there because it could have been an entirely different ending to this,” he said.
Almost two weeks after the fire, Danna and David Gustafson were able to meet the man in yellow who evacuated them.
“We were talking with Chris and my husband said, ‘Well, who was the first one over there in the white truck? He was wearing the yellow jacket and yelling, ‘Get out! Get out!”’
“And Chris said, ‘That was me.’
“It was really good to put a face on the person who was making dang sure you got the heck out of there,” she said. “He’s such a darling. He asked, ‘Well, did I do OK? I never did an evacuation like that before.’
“And I said, ‘You did wonderfully. You got our butts out of there.'”
The first four don’t talk about the evacuation experience readily. They’d prefer to go about their days, doing their work for the city. When asked if they feel like heroes, they all shook their heads.
“Right place, right time,” Adame said. “Right place, right time.”
“We’re ready to stop talking about it,” MacLennan said.
“I don’t think we did anything that other people in our positions wouldn’t have done,” Stewart added.
The four said some of their equipment — MacLennan’s motorcycle helmet, Adame’s service van — still smells like smoke. And, as they stood on the ashes of the homes they evacuated more than two weeks earlier, they said they still relive those six minutes.
“It took me awhile to get to sleep after,” Adame said. “I know these people personally. I’ve been in each one of those houses that burned.
“I still feel for the people. It’s still not OK.”