When he got up to mow his grass early Saturday morning, Harold Terry was pleased to see the air wasn’t as smoky as the night before.
It didn’t take long for Azalea, where Terry has a cattle ranch, to be shrouded in smoke from the Milepost 97 Fire burning on the west side of Interstate 5 between Canyonville and Azalea.
The fire grew to 9,000 acres overnight Friday, according to the Oregon Department of Forestry. It’s currently the largest fire in the Pacific Northwest. An ODF incident management team took command of the fire from local fire districts on Friday. About 900 firefighters, 15 helicopters and multiple large and small-engine air tankers were assigned to the fire Saturday.
Air quality south of the fire ranged from “moderate” in Medford to “very unhealthy” in Grants Pass, according to the federal Air Quality Index. Air quality was considered “good” in areas north of the fire.
The Douglas County Sheriff’s Office issued residents on the west side of I-5 between mileposts 83 and 88 a Level 1 “Be Ready” evacuation notice Friday night. By 1:30 p.m. on Saturday, the Sheriff’s Office elevated the notice to Level 2 “Set,” meaning residents should be ready to evacuate at a moment’s notice.
Residents and friends in the area spent the day Saturday readying homes and livestock for the possibility that the growing fire would reach their doorsteps.
High temperatures and winds, low humidity and difficult firefighting terrain with limited road access have hindered fire suppression efforts since it began Wednesday.
A firefighter told Terry the fire was about 2 miles from his house on Saturday morning.
“The driveway and the porches are just covered with ash from last night,” said Terry, whose ranch sits in the middle of the evacuation warning area. “I’ve never experienced anything like that before. It gives you a weird feeling when you’re picking out a few things that are your mementos, and chances are you’re not going to leave, but if you did, that’s the last you’re ever going to see it. It affected us.”
Terry said a neighbor with the Douglas Forest Protective Association told him his property was well-prepared for the fire, with open spaces, not many large trees and irrigation.
About 10 a.m., a helicopter started taking water out of an irrigation pond in Terry’s backyard to fight the fire. It made trips every five to 10 minutes.
“If it saves something — we can do without irrigation,” he said. “Somebody can’t do without their home or buildings or life.”
While he was optimistic about his home and cattle coming out of the fire unscathed, he admitted it’s frightening to have to pack important documents, his son’s Future Farmer’s of America awards and other irreplaceable items. He admitted anything could happen.
“After Paradise and some of that, you just don’t know,” Terry said, referring to last year’s Camp Fire, which destroyed Paradise, California and killed 85 people.
Deputy Fire Marshal Mike Shaw, with the Oregon State Fire Marshal’s Office, met with several firefighters assigned to the Milepost 97 Fire and others from local fire districts outside the Azalea Community Church to discuss structure preparation in the area.
“We’re helping the local fire districts with assessing their homes, how many they have out there, clearances, stuff like that,” Shaw said.
Meanwhile, a fire hand crew with Medford-based 3 B’s Forestry Inc. worked to clear out brush and other fire fuels in the woods above Fortune Branch Road, where there are multiple houses in the evacuation warning area.
About 15 firefighters chainsawed saplings and dead logs, dragging them out of a ditch near the road. Ash floated down while the orange sun was obscured by thick smoke.
“It’s a little personal,” said firefighter Chuck Watson, of Canyonville. “For a lot of us here, we just love the job and doing a service for the community, but when it’s our own community, it’s that much more personal. We grew up in these lands, we hunt these lands, we hike them, so we want to keep them pretty, but fire is a natural process.”
Filling her car with gas at a gas station in Quines Creek, Bella Gibson said she’s planning to become a licensed Emergency Medical Technician to work with the Azalea Rural Fire Protection District.
She’s from Australia and moved to the area recently to live with her husband and his family, who are from Azalea. She said these are the smokiest conditions she’s ever experienced.
“It’s gotten my nerves pumping,” Gibson said.
She said she’s also earning her pilot’s license because she wants to be able to fly helicopters and fight fires such as the Milepost 97 Fire.
Gibson and her in-laws in Azalea are all ready to evacuate, she said. They’re landlords, and she said they were checking in on tenants Saturday morning to make sure everyone was prepared for the fire.
“I love this community. That’s all I can say.”
Gibson headed to the 29th Annual Back to the 50’s Celebration in Grants Pass after she left the gas station.