What It Was Like to Escape a Wildfire In the Middle of the Night
Two retirees recount their narrow escape from their home during a wildfire in Oregon.
It’s a scene out of a nightmare: waking up in the middle of the night to discover a fire coming toward you. A neighbor pounding on the door, yelling for you to get out. That nightmare became reality for Ron and Sharon Ross in the tiny coastal town of Otis, Oregon, on 1:15 A.M. on September 8.
A rude awakening
“We had no warning,” says Ron, 73, a welding technician and Vietnam Vet (Army, ’67-’68) referring to himself and wife Sharon, 74. And with winds at 70 MPH that night, the fire was quickly heading their way from nearby Echo Mountain.
They had 30 minutes to grab what they could and go. As they rushed to gather their valuables—Gizmo the cat, computer, important files, contents of the safe—”there are so many things I wish I had thought to take,” says Ron—their growing concern was for their new kitten Piper, who was getting skittish with all the sudden movements and started to hide.
Power outage hinders progress
Just as they were looking for Piper, the power went out. “Now I had to find flashlights and locate a black cat in a black room, meanwhile Sharon’s arm is in a sling from recent surgery, so she could only use one arm to hold the flashlight,” recalls Ron.
Another wrinkle in their escape plan: Their truck was parked behind their brand-new RV barn, which operates with electric doors, now useless in the power outage. “We’d only had the barn for a week, so I hadn’t yet opened it by hand,” he says. “So here I am, really putting all my weight into it to pull down that rope and I give it a rip, and it just went flying open so hard that I fell on my backside. At that point, I’m laughing because you gotta laugh.” (Luckily, Ron kept his wits, and humor, intact, which enabled them a quick escape. Find out what not to do in an emergency.)
A narrow escape
As the fire started coming down the mountain, though, he didn’t have much more time to laugh. As Sharon escaped in one of their two vehicles, Gizmo the cat next to her, Ron stayed behind with his truck to search once more for Piper. “She’s freaked out because we’re running all over the place and in the end, I just couldn’t catch her,” he says, his voice cracking. “That’s rough to think about.”
Time was ticking, though, and he needed to go. But not before helping a neighbor in need: As he navigated the thick smoke while descending the mountain toward safety, he saw a figure walking toward the fire. “The smoke was so thick at that point I could barely recognize him, but it was my neighbor walking toward his house, and I knew I had to get him there,” says Ron. He turned around and picked up his neighbor, escorting him to his house. (His neighbor survived: Miraculously, there were no fatalities in the Echo Mountain fire.)
While they were charging down the mountain, emergency personnel were on the scene; here, a firefighter recounts how it feels to be in the midst of a wildfire.
Courtesy Ron Ross
The Echo Mountain Fire ended up burning over 2,500 acres and destroyed 30 homes in Otis itself (293 total homes were leveled in the fire).
“There was nothing left, just grey ash,” Ron says. “You watch the news, you see people who have house fires and lost everything and you think, ‘oh my, that’s gotta be terrible’ but you can’t imagine what it’s like, it’s like everything you’ve got going up in smoke which can never be replaced.”
An unprecedented combination of high winds and dry conditions contributed to the wildfires, which burned over 1 million acres throughout the state in multiple separate fires, destroying thousands of homes (11 lives were lost statewide).
As of press time, the Echo Mountain fire’s cause was still under investigation. Possible theories include whether a local power company’s negligence with their power lines may have contributed to the devastation. (Oregon wasn’t the only west coast state plagued by fires; California and Washington were also hit heavy.)
Rising from the ashes
While the couple has lived in Otis for just four years now, they felt at home immediately. Moving from Portland in 2016—where Sharon was raised, and where Ron has called home since the 1980s—they sought a quieter life for their retirement in the coastal town of Otis, population 3,500.
“We just like the area, we like the town, we like the coast here,” he says. “You can leave your car unlocked. Kids can ride their bikes here at night, and it’s kind of like what I experienced in the 50s growing up [in Danville, Illinois], and what we experienced in Portland for a long time, too,” says Ron.
The fire has only strengthened their sense of community—with neighbors temporarily displaced in nearby hotels and houses, they are gathering regularly to compare notes and strengthen their collective will.
“I’ve met more neighbors in the past couple of weeks than I have in the four years we’ve been here,” he laughs. “And make no mistake: as soon as we’re able to, we will rebuild.” To donate to their rebuilding efforts, visit their GoFundMe page. To help the Otis community, a local contractor is also raising funds for rebuilding.
Think what happens in another part of the world doesn’t affect you? Learn what the Australian wildfires in early 2020 have meant for the world.