In the late evening of Sept. 7, the Kingsley Field Fire Department, part of the 173rd Fighter Wing of the Oregon Air National Guard, received a dispatch call for assistance for a wildland fire burning near Chiloquin, a neighboring community north of the small town in the southwest corner of Oregon.
For one firefighter, that meant a wake-up call just after 1 a.m., something he said is totally routine at a fire station. When he and two other Kingsley Firefighters arrived at the Two Four Two Fire north of Klamath Falls, it was anything but routine.
“That’s the worst fire I have ever seen in 20 years of firefighting in Oregon,” said Rees Thomas, a Kingsley firefighter.
Matt Chavarria, the team lead for the Kingsley contingent, said it was the most difficult fire that he’s fought.
“We had resources in place to fight the fire as it ran to the northwest; within a half hour, the fire changed direction and was running to the southeast,” Chavarria said.
He went on to say that a typical fire dies down at night allowing crews to make progress containing it; unfortunately, this fire, driven by high winds and low humidity, saw a flame front gobble up acres at more than 30 mph, all night long.
“The flame front had flame lengths of between 80 and 100 feet,” he said.
In the first 12 hours, the fire grew to nearly 10,000 acres, a pace the firefighters said was staggering. Additionally, fires around the state were burning in the same fashion, leaving no additional resources available even when the fire was categorized as a conflagration. However, it did allow Kingsley Field to send one more engine due to the size of the emergency.
More than 600 homes were threatened and the fire crews found themselves leaping from property to property trying to save each one in turn from flames that literally burned up to the house and in the trees overhead.
“I can say for a fact that we saved four homes,” Chavarria said.
Those four homes represent a herculean effort, but one with very high stakes, said Jesse St. John, a Kingsley firefighter. “Once a fire takes a home in a neighborhood, you can’t stop the spread and the entire neighborhood will burn.”
Fire crews from around the region including the towns of Chiloquin, Merrill and Malin fought off the fires. Of the 1,532 structures threatened, only eight burned.
One in particular weighs heavily on Chavarria. “We had one house that we saved three times in the first 12 hours,” he said. With the house safe, he had to brief a new, incoming crew on how to continue firefighting efforts. When they returned in less than 20 minutes, the house was engulfed in flames. It was a total loss.
“There’s no way to know what happened but it’s likely that some embers found their way under a deck and smoldered for hours before something set it off,” despite using lots of water and other protective measures for the property, he said.
“It’s heartbreaking,” he said.
Although homes were lost to the flames, not one person died in the fire. Everyone was safely evacuated and protected the night of the Two Four Two Fire.
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