SELMA, Ore. – Kristy McMahan was swimming with her kids in the Illinois River when some feeling told her to go home.
When she got there, fire was bearing down on her house. She managed to get three horses out of the burning corral and into a trailer, round up four dogs and three burned cats, turn loose her neighbor’s horse, and call her husband, Matt, at the tire store in Grants Pass where he works.
“Skyler said, ‘Dad, come home quick, there’s fire on both sides of the road,’ then the phone went dead,” Kristy McMahan said Saturday as she watered her horses, corralled at Lake Selmac Park alongside the tents of nearly 1,000 firefighters battling the Deer Creek fire. “We had maybe 15 minutes. It was a do-or-die situation.”
She loaded the kids in the pickup and hauled the trailer filled with animals down the drive with brush and trees burning on both sides.
The fire started Thursday afternoon in grass next to a vineyard, then raced across Deer Creek Road and destroyed four scattered homes sharing the same driveway with the McMahans. The cause remains under investigation. One newly built home on the driveway survived. A fifth home a few miles away burned Friday.
More than 100 scattered homes were threatened at one point, but none remained in danger, authorities said.
By Saturday, firefighters had lines dug around the entire perimeter of the blaze. But they considered the fire only 40 percent contained as it continued burning on the northwest flank.
Early estimates put the fire at 2,000 acres. But infrared aerial mapping Friday night put it at 1,636 acres, said Oregon Department of Forestry spokesman Chris Friend.
Residents of about 40 homes on Davis Creek and Indian Creek outside the western fire perimeter, evacuated since Thursday, were allowed back to their homes Saturday afternoon. No other homes were under evacuation.
Firefighters on Friday found about 100 marijuana plants growing at an evacuated home on Crooks Creek, said Josephine County Undersheriff Brian Anderson. Deputies cut the plants down, but left some on the property after finding a permit for medical marijuana.
By Saturday, the McMahan family was able to look at what was left of their home and 10 acres covered with madrona, Douglas fir, and incense cedar.
The brick shell of the house still stood, as did a chicken coop and the horse corral, but the contents of the house were reduced to ashes and twisted metal heaped in the basement.
“This was my front door,” Kristy McMahan said, peering in the empty frame. “That was the kids’ room. That was the mattress from their bunk bed.”
“This was my kitchen,” she said looking in a back window, the aluminum frame and glass melted in globs on the brick sill.
The McMahans had moved to Selma last December from Sumner, Wash. While her husband worked, Kristy McMahan made three trips hauling their belongings here. She built fences, thinned trees, and was getting ready to paint the trim.
“To have it all burn down, that’s hard to swallow,” she said.
She had fallen in love with rural southwestern Oregon while driving through in 2000. Two years later, the Biscuit fire burned 500,000 acres in the nearby Siskiyou National Forest, but spared Selma. When living in Washington, a gas pipeline had exploded near their home, but wildfire was not a problem. When a new tire store opened in nearby Grants Pass, they decided to move.
“I truly believe everything happens for a reason, but it’s really hard to figure out what this reason will be,” Kristy McMahan said while caring for her horses.