Ted Frostenson stood atop his house the morning of Saturday, Aug. 24, 1996, watching the Skeleton Fire creep along the forest floor toward the Sundance subdivision. As he watched, the slow-moving fire began to sprint through the drought-stricken trees and underbrush, with winds gusting nearly 30 miles an hour behind it.
”I remember standing on the roof,” he said. ”They blew the evac siren at about ten a.m. At a quarter to twelve, it was roaring like ten freight trains.”
That was about the time Frostenson saw the blaze reach a stand of new growth ponderosa and suddenly explode into a 150-foot wall of flame. Frostenson remembers that as the moment he realized the fire was really coming his way, that it was really going to get to the houses.
Thursday and Friday, Aug. 23 and 24, marked the fifth anniversary of that fire. Skeleton claimed 19 houses. It swallowed 17,736 acres of juniper and ponderosa forest. After an initial response of just 200 firefighters, numbers swelled closer to 1,000 as the fire was finally reined in five days after it started. It cost millions of dollars to clean up.
In a year that 600,000 acres burned in Oregon alone almost 12 times as much as the year before Skeleton was one of just two in the state that took inhabited structures. A wet winter and a hot summer resulted in the worst fire season then on record. Skeleton came late in that season, and crews were exhausted and undermanned when the fire reached the Sundance subdivision at midmorning that Saturday.
In the five years since the fire took their homes, seven of the 19 families sold their property and left. Neighbors say two residents are just rebuilding their houses now.
Many of those whose houses burned were unwilling to relive those days. The ones who agreed to speak emphasized a few things almost universally: the tension of that Saturday, the heroics of the firefighters, and the sense of renewal that brought Sundance neighbors together in the weeks and months after the blaze.
Sundance resident Tom Brey recalls that when he woke up that Saturday morning, he could barely see. When he'd first been warned about the fire the night before, the air was clear and he couldn't even smell the smoke. The winds, which were calmer and blowing away from town Friday night, had shifted, pulling the fire in the direction of the subdivision.
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”(That) morning, I couldn't see across the street it was so smoky,” he said. ”The wind sock told me the fire was gonna start coming this way.
”Then the police came with their sirens blaring.”
”When it's happening, you can't even think,” said Claudia Brown, another resident. ”We didn't hang around.”
The Browns Claudia and her husband, Jerry loaded into a truck and left. Claudia Brown still has second thoughts about the decision five years later.
”If we had it to do over again, I don't think I'd leave,” she said. ”I'd stay and fight.”
Meanwhile, Robyn Tatom, who was in Portland for a wedding, was trying frantically to contact her son, Oliver, who had told her over the phone that morning that he was being evacuated.
At noon, Tatom called home again and got a busy signal not a good sign. Normally, call waiting would answer the phone.
”I called over and over again,” she said.Bea Ledyard was also getting a busy signal. She'd been home alone that morning, fixing breakfast for some friends, when the evacuation call came. Her husband, Stephen, was on vacation in Alaska, and her son was at school in Eugene. She rescheduled the meal and left, just before 10 a.m.
After breakfast, the radio was saying the winds had changed, and that the fire was headed toward the subdivision in earnest now.
”I wanted to see what was going on,” she said. ”I went up to the top of Pilot Butte. I ended up standing next to a neighbor who had a C.B. radio. We heard them talking, and they were on my street.
”I was pretty scared.”
The Browns, too, were listening on a radio.
”You could just hear the tension,” said Claudia Brown. ”They (the firefighters) were scared.”
”That's when it exploded,” said Tom Brey, who tried to watch the fire through his binoculars from a nearby road. He could see smoke billowing from his neighborhood, and the lights of fire trucks backing down the hill where his house was.
”Every time you'd see a bomb of black smoke, you knew it was a house,” he said.
Around that time, John and Cathy Speckman came back from Sisters to find they were shut out.
”We lied to get back into the neighborhood,” Cathy Speckman said.
Hauling a horse trailer, the Speckmans said they wanted to go into the neighborhood to pick up pets that were running loose. When the firefighters at the entrance to Sundance let them in, they drove into an inferno of terrifying scope.
”It was hotter than hell and it was the scariest thing I'd ever seen,” John Speckman said. ”Looking up at the ridge, there was black with a red glow.”
They tried to drive up the ridge to their house, but couldn't. A hot wind howled from the flames, bits of fiery wood from collapsing houses and exploding trees shot through the air. They continually moved their truck to avoid falling clouds of fire retardant, which was dropped a Deschutes County record 51 times that day.
It didn't take long for the Speckmans to decide that this was too much for them. A firefighter told them that visibility was about one foot near their house, so rather than try to go see it, they left.
That was mid-afternoon, anywhere from 2 to 4:30 p.m., depending on whose estimate you go by. Around that time, the Speckmans received two phone calls: The first from Bea Ledyard, hoping for any kind of news about her house, and the second from Robyn Tatom, who said she needed their help to get her horses out of the area.
”Cathy said, 'The good news is our house is OK,' ” Ledyard said. ” 'The bad news is, yours is gone.'
”Immediately I went outside and walked around the block about five times.”
The Speckmans then met Tatom, and together talked their way past a firefighter at the entrance to Sundance, and went to look for Tatom's horses.
What they saw once they got inside was something like the aftermath of a war.
”It was real dark, and really kind of eerie,” Tatom said. ”There were firemen lying on the side of the road.”
The earth was scorched and black, and the exhausted firefighters many of whom had been all over the West in the weeks prior to Skeleton were smeared with soot, unable to stand after 24 solid hours of fighting the fire. Tatom drove the bending length of Calgary Drive, past the wasted firefighters and bombed-out forest.
Usually, as Tatom came up the base of the hill that her house was on, the house was silhouetted against the sky at the top. Turning the corner of Calgary and coming up the hill, the scene had changed.
”There was no silhouette,” she said. ”That was pretty tough. I stopped and cried for a while.”
It wouldn't be until Sunday morning, when all the evacuees would gather at the Red Cross center at Bend High School, that most people got to see whether their homes had burned. The names and addresses of those whose houses had burned were read over the P.A. system, and then everyone loaded onto school buses and drove out to the neighborhood.
”It was pretty traumatic when you heard them read your name off,” Jerry Brown said.
”I held out hope that maybe they got our name wrong,” Claudia Brown said.
They hadn't. The Browns found their home gone. Firefighters had been able to save only a shed that stands to this day a few yards behind their new house.
”I lost everything that was irreplaceable,” Claudia Brown said. ”You never get over (things like) your grandmother's sewing machine.”
The Frostensons, who owned two houses on neighboring lots, were luckier.
”So we got up to Horse Butte and Sweetgrass, and I saw the west side of this house, and the north end up on the ridge,” Ted Frostenson said.
He thought he must have been imagining it. The fire had been so big, and all of their neighbors' houses on that ridge had burned. So he waited as the bus came along Sweetgrass and up Calgary, watching through the trees. He couldn't see anything.
Then there was a clear space, and he saw it: His house, not unharmed, but still standing. It was an agonizing ride; the Frostensons' was the farthest from the entrance to Sundance, and they were the last to be dropped off.
Finally, too stunned by the destruction to feel joy at the sight of their home still standing, the Frostensons got off the bus to find a firefighter standing in their driveway.
”He said, 'I am so sorry we misled you,' ” Ted Frostenson said. ”We didn't care. Neither of us could even say anything.”
The man's concerns that the Frostensons would be upset about being told their home was destroyed when it was not seemed silly to Ted Frostenson, who on the verge of tears embraced the firefighter,
At Tom Brey's home, the things that he collected from the ashes were odd, and seemed out of place. He found some Tonka trucks that dated back to Tom's childhood, an old rifle he'd built himself, a melted golf club. The trucks were black. The rifle's stock had burned clean away, leaving only the barrel. The club curved back on itself, useless, and black as well.
On the driveway, a shadow of the Breys' house had been burned into the asphalt.
”It was like Christmas in hell,” Tom Brey said.