While families were kicking off their Labor Day weekend, National Weather Service observers in Medford were seeing an unsettling weather pattern developing for southwest Oregon.
A region already troubled by a nearly year-long stretch of dry weather, alarmingly low humidity and a run of daily high temperatures in the mid- to high-90s was projected to get hammered by strong winds out of the north.
Kyle Reed, a spokesperson for the Douglas Forest Protective Association, had not seen conditions so severe in his 18 years with the DFPA. Reed worried that extra people outside during a holiday weekend would add to the already elevated fire danger.
On Saturday, Sept. 5, the National Weather Service issued a red flag warning for central Douglas County, citing the possibility of the strong winds.
“We see (red flag warnings) often for lightning, but not as often for winds,” Reed said. “We knew if something started, it wasn’t going to be very good.”
Reed’s fears were soon confirmed.
On Monday, Sept. 7, at 11:15 p.m., Douglas County Emergency Communications received reports of a grass fire burning along the north bank of the North Umpqua River near Glide. The DFPA and the Glide Volunteer Fire Department scramble to deploy firefighters on what became known as the French Creek Fire. Strong winds coming from the east — not the north as predicted — were pushing the fire along the hillsides at a rapid pace.
“I was notified by a patrol sergeant in the area around midnight who was responding to Glide and said the winds were pretty severe,” said Douglas County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Brad O’Dell. “The wind was really ripping.”
Around 1 a.m. Tuesday, the sheriff’s office and Douglas County Search and Rescue raced toward the neighborhoods along North Bank Road — at the time approximately 2 miles west of the fire’s edge — and homes along Glide Loop Road and the eastern leg of Wild River Drive to help with evacuations.
Bulldozers were able to punch containment lines well in front of the fire, and suppression crews got control of the fire by early Tuesday. The fire burned a total of 495 acres of mostly pasture land.
Further east, a monster was coming to life.
Later that morning several residents were reporting possible fire activity 15 to 20 miles east of Glide. Officials received reports of a possible fire near Susan Creek, another in the Bogus Creek area and in the Archie Creek drainage.
Douglas County Sheriff John Hanlin still remembers that Tuesday.
“Myself and (Douglas County Commissioner) Tim Freeman decided to drive out to Glide and check on the progress (of the French Creek Fire) and that’s when we learned about a fire up near milepost 35 on Highway 138,” Hanlin said. “We got up around Moore Hill Lane and there were already talks about evacuations, and that was maybe 10-10:30 a.m.”
Two fires became the latest in a series of wildfires to be named across Oregon: the Star Mountain and Archie Creek fires.
Throughout Tuesday morning, strong east winds persisted and pushed the two fires together. The single blaze was now the Archie Creek Fire, and it was moving at breakneck speed.
The sheriff’s office, Glide fire personnel and the Oregon State Police rushed to get residents on notice to evacuate the area. In addition to the county’s emergency alert system — or “reverse 911” — residents from Idleyld Park to Steamboat and along Rock Creek Road were told to leave their homes immediately. Officers and fire personnel were also going door-to-door to give the order.
At the time, there were roughly 200 firefighters available — four other major wildfires were already raging further north — and the focus was on the safety of the residents and structural protection where possible.
“That was the start of a long day and a long month,” Reed said.
By the afternoon, the Archie Creek Fire was up to full speed. It already had been estimated that the fire had destroyed several homes in the Rock Creek area and near Susan Creek. Residents in the Rock Creek area had as little as mere minutes to evacuate or risk being in the fire’s path.
Hanlin and Freeman were helping with evacuations further east along the North Umpqua River, but when they tried to come back downriver to Glide, the fire had jumped Highway 138 East at Bogus Creek.
“We couldn’t come back,” Hanlin said.
Instead, the pair traveled further east and crossed through the mountains from Panther Creek to Little River Road. When they were near the apex of Panther Creek, Hanlin and Freeman witnessed the power and fury of the Archie Creek Fire.
“It was just exploding,” Hanlin recalled. “There was so much wind pushing that plume. You could just tell there was a lot of energy in that fire to develop a storm cloud like that.”
Within hours, the entire Umpqua Basin was cast into darkness, both literally and figuratively.
“The first 24 to 48 hours are the hardest because you’re trying to get information to the public as quick as you can,” Reed said. “With something burning as fast as it was, that’s not easy to do.”
O’Dell was stationed at the Glide Fire Department helping to coordinate evacuation orders.
“When I stepped out into the parking lot, the sky was dark,” O’Dell said. “There was this weird sense. I don’t know how to describe it. It was a weird sense of calm, but there was a monster looming in the background.
“It was just a barrage of information and a sense of needing to get that information out to the community,” he said.
O’Dell took to the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office’s Facebook page, where he would post videos with evacuation updates. Reed posted updates on the fire itself through the DFPA’s Facebook page.
O’Dell estimated he worked 28 hours straight Tuesday into the morning of Wednesday, Sept. 9. When he was back to work Wednesday, there was more bad news.
Strong winds had blown embers from the Archie Creek Fire around the face of Mount Scott and into the Hinkle Creek drainage in the Nonpareil area east of Sutherlin. That meant another round of evacuations.
By late Tuesday, the Archie Creek Fire was estimated to have burnt 72,000 acres in the 12 hours since the two fires had first been reported. Wednesday morning, that estimate had grown to 96,000 acres.
Nearly 100,000 acres in less than 30 hours, and less than 300 people available to combat the blaze.
Hanlin, who grew up in Dixonville and attended Glide High School, spent eight years working with the DFPA. The Archie Creek Fire, though, was different.
“I had never seen one burn with such intensity and move so fast as this one,” Hanlin said. “It was just an incredibly dangerous fire for everybody.”
While fire officials scrambled to find personnel, residents were scrambling to help.
Volunteers fought to defend homes on Lone Rock Road east of Glide, working through the night to dig protective fire lines as structural support was not available.
The North Umpqua Bible Fellowship 2 miles west of Glide opened its doors as a house of refuge for many residents as they tried to figure out their next move. Church volunteers offered meals, prayer and lodging as cars, campers, recreational vehicles and tents littered the parking lot and adjacent grass field.
The Douglas County Board of Commissioners opened the Douglas County Fairgrounds as an evacuation center, opening available spaces in the fairground’s RV park and opening its livestock stables for residents who needed to evacuate their animals. The commercial building was opened as a Red Cross shelter, with socially-distanced cots available for those who had nowhere else to sleep.
Disaster relief resources were available on-site, and the Northwest Interagency Management Team 9 set up a command center at the fairgrounds as well, eventually turning over command to the Level 3 Southern Area Red Team, one of the top incident command teams in the country.
In Glide, the 138 Grill opened to help feed firefighters and displaced residents. Aided by donations from throughout the area, the restaurant and its volunteers were serving between 500-700 meals a day. The nonprofit Glide Revitalization commandeered the old Glide Middle School gymnasium, which quickly turned into a donation center, offering food, clothing and support. A team from the Federal Emergency Management Agency also set up an incident post in the gym.
Support was pouring in from all over Douglas County.
The Umpqua Basin remained cloaked in smoke for more than a week as the Archie Creek Fire was rapidly subsiding.
In the coming days after the fire’s initial eruption, additional help began to pour into Glide, eventually reaching nearly 1,200 total personnel as crews were demobilized from other fires.
Despite working in difficult terrain, heavy equipment operators successfully established containment lines around the fire’s most prone areas of spread.
Within 10 days, evacuation orders gradually were reduced. On Oct. 8, O’Dell took to Facebook one last time to report that the final remaining Level 1 evacuation orders in the Glide area had been lifted.
At its final estimate, the Archie Creek Fire burned 131,542 acres.
Reporting the fire was difficult for O’Dell, a 2002 Glide High School graduate. Seeing the damage left behind didn’t make things any easier.
“As a first responder, you try to separate your personal feelings. You do that to accomplish the mission,” O’Dell said. “You have to do that, but it’s really hard to do that sometimes.
“I know a lot of people in the community and separating was somewhat difficult at times. You empathize with the folks who are suffering,” he said.
Reed considered the 2013 Douglas Complex a “career” event. Those fires burned an estimated 48,000 acres.
“I’ve been through a number of career events in a short time,” Reed said. “If we could go without one for a while, that would be amazing.”
Reed estimates that after the Douglas Complex, Stouts Creek and Milepost 97 fires — and now Archie Creek — roughly 12% of the 1.6 million acres the association protects is a fire scar.
The scar left behind by the Archie Creek Fire alone causes added concern.
“That’s going to be a huge problem going forward,” Reed said. “When you have a 131,000-acre fire scar, it just raises the risk of future fires.”
The North Umpqua River corridor has long been a tourist attraction in itself. From the North Umpqua Trail to waterfalls, campgrounds and a beautiful river famous for its fishing, the North Umpqua River is a wonderland for outdoor enthusiasts.
The trails to those waterfalls are torched, as are the campgrounds. There’s no way to tell when any of those trails will again be accessible.
The Rock Creek Fish Hatchery, more than 100 years old, was burned to the ground, and 700 salmon and steelhead were successfully transferred to the Cole’s River Hatchery in Trail for spawning.
A total of 109 homes were lost as well as other structures, including the DFPA Guard Station just east of Swiftwater Park and a fire lookout station on Mount Scott. The only life lost due to the fire was that of an equipment operator from Burns who passed away in his truck while staging for that day’s assignment.
For Hanlin, seeing the damage for the first time was difficult to stomach.
“It was just devastating to see the damage to the forest up there,” Hanlin said. “I was just in awe. I never thought I’d see a fire burn with the devastation that this fire did. But I witnessed it.
“I know that beautiful drive will never look the same in my lifetime.”