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The Penninger Fire came uncomfortably close to home one year ago today

The fast-moving fire damaged some homes and forced evacuations around Central Point and Medford as it rushed through fields of dry grass.

Posted: Jul 17, 2019 12:28 PM
Updated: Jul 17, 2019 6:32 PM

CENTRAL POINT, Ore. — It wasn't the biggest, the deadliest, or most destructive wildfire of 2018, but for a few hours the Penninger Fire brought the greater Medford area perilously close to experiencing what Paradise, California experienced several months later.

Late afternoon on July 17, 2018, NewsWatch 12 started receiving reports of a grass fire near the Rogue Valley Family Fun Center and the Bear Creek Greenway — along Peninger (or Penninger) Road. Even as emergency crews started to respond, the fire spread rapidly east through dry grass and brush.

NewsWatch 12's assignment manager Mike Zacchino happened to be driving by the area when the fire began, and went live on Facebook as a wall of smoke began to roll through nearby neighborhoods ahead of the advancing flames.

Deputies with the Jackson County Sheriff's Office quickly shut down nearby roads; Hamrick, Beebe and Gebhardt. They shut down the on and off-ramps at Exit 33. Eventually, traffic would begin piling up for miles as deputies were forced to close areas of Vilas and Table Rock Roads.

Minutes later, the Sheriff's Office issued a hurried Level 3 evacuation order for all residents within a two-mile radius of the Expo.

Some people left their homes in a rush. Other people, stuck in traffic pileups, couldn't get home to grab any of their pets or possessions. Two men said that they had tried to stay and keep their home safe, but were "dragged" away by Sheriff's deputies.

Employees and customers evacuated the Costco between Central Point and Medford as flames came rushing through grass a stone's throw from the parking lot. The fire continued to spread with amazing speed, now heading toward the Rogue Valley International-Medford Airport.

But just as quickly as it began, the Penninger Fire was over. As firefighters from multiple agencies rushed to contain it and air tankers buzzed the area, dropping water or retardant, the threat suddenly went up in smoke. Evacuations orders were lifted before 7 p.m.

Once the dust settled, fire officials estimated that the fire burned 97 acres between Central Point and Medford. Three homes received fire damage and several out-buildings were destroyed.

Days later there was a final grim discovery — the remains of a man found burned along Bear Creek. An investigation later concluded that 60-year-old Robert Lee Walker was likely sleeping at a transient camp when the fire overcame him. Investigators also concluded that the fire itself was human-caused.

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