BEND, Ore. - Back in August of 1996, a nasty thunderstorm strikes Central Oregon.
"I looked up in the sky and there were these huge billowing clouds, and I thought, 'Oh my goodness, it looks like a fire,'" said Linda Swearingen, who owned a house int he Sundance subdivision southeast of Bend and at the time was running for Deschutes County commissioner (a post she won that fall).
Swearingen was right. Lightning sparked a massive wildfire, right in her backyard.
"Directly behind our house, the entire hillside was up in flames -- and I've got to tell you, for the very first time in my life, my knees knocked together, because I knew the fire was extremely close," Swearingen recalled recently.
The flames were growing, heading right toward the Sundance subdivision, just southeast of Bend.
"We knew it was heading right for our district, and it's tough," said Mark Taylor, now deputy chief of training for Bend Fire and Rescue.
"It was like trying to stop a tidal wave -- you know it's coming at you, and what you can do to minimize the effects, not stop it," Taylor said.
In a matter of hours, the fire moved from burning trees and brush to destroying home after home.
"To pull into a neighborhood and see several homes on fire, and in this rural setting to see even horses tied up to fences, one of the first things we did was just let the horses run free," Taylor recalled.
"Getting out of a fire truck and having pine cones the size of a small baseball on fire flying by your head, we knew we were in for a long day then, too," he added.
The hundreds of evacuees were sent to the Bend High School auditorium, waiting and hoping they would still have a house to go home to.
Swearingen, 18 years later, remembers those anxious, nerve-wracking moments.
"The waiting was very difficult, because we weren't being given information as to whose home had been burned and when we could return. All we knew is several homes, by afternoon, had gone up in smoke," Swearingen said.
A few hours later, residents got the official word: Nineteen homes were lost in the blaze.
Families were escorted back to Sundance the next morning, where the devastation was all too surreal.
"We took the people out there in five bus loads," said Gary Marshall, Bend's fire marshal at the time. "There was a lot of smoke, stumps still smoking, and it looked like a combat zone -- and people just broke down."
Swearingen was one of the lucky ones who could go home.
"It was devastating, because it looked like a bomb had hit Sundance. And I remember going in and thinking, 'I don't recognize any of this,'" Swearingen said.
The Skeleton Fire didn't stop there. It went on to burn a total of 18,000 acres over five days, changing the community forever.
"People just break down when they see that, and it's something that we don't want this to happen in this community again," Marshall said.
After the destruction of the Skeleton Fire, FireFree and Project Wildfire were introduced to educate communities about creating defensible space around their homes. That work continues to this day.
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