Twenty-five years ago today — Aug. 4, 1990 — John Valenti stood outside his home, holding a video camera and watching the flames of the Awbrey Hall Fire tear through areas west of Bend.
He talked to himself and to the camera, chronicling the fire’s spread.
“Getting bigger very fast,” he said early in the recording.
The massive flames moved closer to his home in every clip. Around 10 p.m. the fire was only a few hundred yards away from Valenti’s home in the Westridge subdivision off Century Drive.
“Everything in flames,” he said in the tape. “Goodbye, Westridge.”
The video fades out as smoke blows his way.
• • •
Valenti, the now 72-year-old videographer, was lucky: The fire turned away from his neighborhood. But 22 other nearby homeowners were not. Charging into that Saturday night and early the next morning, the Awbrey Hall Fire jumped over Century Drive and then the Deschutes River, leveling nearly two dozen homes. In 12 hours, the fire charred just over 3,350 acres, about 5¼ square miles.
A quarter century later, the fire stands out in the memories of veteran firefighters for the Bend Fire Department. Now a battalion chief, Dave Howe was a fire captain the night the Awbrey Hall Fire blazed its path.
“It was unbelievable,” he said.
One of the most destructive wildfires in Central Oregon’s history, the fire has left lasting marks beyond the 6-mile-long fire scar stretching from where it began on a ridge overlooking Shevlin Park to where it ended in Deschutes River Woods.
The Awbrey Hall Fire brought changes to how agencies in Central Oregon — city state and federal — work together when it comes to a big blaze burning across jurisdictional boundaries. No longer in separate spheres, the agencies team up to fight such fires.
The Awbrey Hall Fire also prompted lessons in how to maintain vegetation around homes on the fringe of the city where neighborhoods and forest meet and what materials to use when building homes near places that may burn.
Howe said that before the fire many forest subdivisions did not have trimming of brush outside the homes, trying for a natural look, and the homes themselves often had shingle siding and roofs.
“We learned a lot of lessons in that particular fire,” said Howe, who has been with the Bend Fire Department since 1978 .
Almost a month of unseasonably warm weather preceded the Awbrey Hall Fire, priming the woods west of Bend to burn. The fire started about 3 p.m. Investigators initially thought a campfire spreading outside its ring started the blaze, but it was later determined to be intentionally set.
A Bend man was charged with sparking the Awbrey Hall Fire. Investigators with the Central Oregon Arson Task Force arrested Aaron Douglas Groshong, a firefighter and owner of Wildcat Firefighting Service, on suspicion of starting the fire and seven other blazes. He served 1½ years in prison and three on parole after entering a plea agreement and pleading guilty to one count of arson connected to one of the other fires.
A rare mix of temperature, humidity and winds fed the fire’s growth into what is often considered the worst wildfire in Bend’s history. While cool Central Oregon nights often calm wildfires and bring firefighters relief, temperatures stayed high, Howe said, so the Awbrey Hall Fire burned like a midafternoon blaze.
“It just took off, and it didn’t stop,” he said.
Helping coordinate firefighting that day and into the night, Howe said he initially named the fire the Powroll Fire after a motorcycle company that used to be located near where the blaze started. Somewhere in communicating with state firefighters, the name was changed to Awbrey Hall Fire, a hybrid of Awbrey Butte and Aspen Hall in Shevlin Park.
Perhaps as a result, the name caused confusion for people living in Bend, Howe said. Few people carried cellphones in 1990, and when word of the fire reached the Deschutes County Fair in Redmond, it caused a panic. Many people who lived on Awbrey Butte thought their homes were in danger.
The fire burned mainly to the south, away from Awbrey Butte, clearing out the open space that’s now home to Tetherow resort. Along the way, it changed direction, at times threatening to spread into subdivisions like Westridge, where Valenti stood with his video camera.
Unstable air swirling around the fire caused it to grow in pulses, said Bob Madden, deputy chief of fire operations for the Bend Fire Department. Firefighters talk about wildfires creating their own weather. The Awbrey Hall Fire did just that, acting like a thunderstorm with waves of hot and cold air fanning the flames.
“The atmospheric conditions were the worst-case scenario that day,” said Madden , who has been with the department since 1986.
An engineer at the time, Madden said he was with a group of firefighters who had gone camping to Crescent Lake on their days off. They were called back to Bend to work as a night crew, relieving firefighters who had been on the Awbrey Hall Fire during the day.
While passing Lava Butte on U.S. Highway 97 south of Bend, Madden saw a startling sight.
“Basically, the western horizon was a wall of fire,” he said. Over the years, Madden and other firefighters on the blaze have seen plenty of fire. But it was shocking to see a wildfire so close to the town he lives in.
The Awbrey Hall Fire hit two neighborhoods the hardest — Sunrise Village subdivision, between Century Drive and the Deschutes River, and Deschutes River Woods. In Sunrise Village, the flames brought down upscale houses then worth up to $500,000. In Deschutes River Woods, the fire destroyed more modest houses and mobile homes. At the height of the fire, about 2,800 residents were evacuated, with many first seeking shelter at Cascade Middle School in southwest Bend and later Bend and Mountain View high schools.
The fire continued to grow until the early morning hours of Aug. 5, 1990, only stopping once it burned into an irrigated , grassy field. Firefighters got a handle on the blaze around 3 a.m. that Sunday.
“It did what it wanted to until it ran out of fuel,” Madden said.
Tales of the Awbrey Hall Fire are many — from the deft firefighting with little water to save the Entrada Lodge, to Jim Varner’s swim across the Deschutes River to help two women evacuate their home. He guided them along the Deschutes River Trail away from the fire. The stories also included the experiences of people who lost their homes to the flames.
‘It can’t get any worse’
For William Kuhn, who lost his home on River Bend Drive and nearly all his belongings, simple tasks would bring back memories of the Awbrey Hall Fire years later.
Sitting at his desk, he would reach for an important document and not be able to find it. He would remember it was among those he lost.
It took years for the feeling to fade.
He and his wife, Leigh, settled into a new home between Bend and Sisters. But recalling the fire brings up a different eerie emotion.
“The one feeling you have after it happens is that it can’t get any worse,” he said. “You just lost everything. How can it get any worse?”
They were not alone.
The Awbrey Hall Fire destroyed 22 homes, many in Deschutes River Woods and Sunrise Village, such as the house belonging to Scott Morelock’s parents.
A photo on The Bulletin front page from Monday, Aug. 6, 1990, shows Morelock helping his dad sift through the remains of the house that had overlooked Century Drive in Sunrise Village.
Of the few things worth salvaging, most were ceramics — some cups and a sun-shaped wall hanging — that could take the fire’s heat.
“It torched everything,” said Morelock, now 58 and living in Bend. “It cooked the frozen food in the freezer.”
Kuhn said he remembers the good deeds of other people in the community after the fire. They dropped off boxes of food and clothing, adding to all the help provided by the American Red Cross.
“There were some very kind people, and we don’t even know who they were,” he said.
Having been through the pain of losing a home, Kuhn offers a warning to people who live close to the woods. As the forest grows, it prepares to burn again.
“Anyone who decides to live on the edge of the forest risks losing their homes,” he said. “We know that.”
Two days after the Awbrey Hall Fire, Valenti, who lived in Westridge, took his video camera into the blackened neighborhood down a dirt road near his home. Firefighters were still spraying water on hot spots.
The video shows a burned-out pickup and car, debris left from some of the homes lost in the blaze and other homes that seemingly miraculously survived.
“I don’t know how that house made it,” he said in the video. “It’s right next to one that didn’t right there.”
— Reporter: 541-617-7812, email@example.com