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2014 fire season off to early start

A CFPA fire crew leaves the staging area Wednesday to battle the Euchre Creek fire near Ophir. Photo by Randy Robbins

The first day of the 2014 wildland season began at 12:01 a.m. June 11, and within 12 hours, nearly 100 firefighters were fighting their first blaze in Curry County on a steep hillside east of Euchre Creek near Ophir.

The Euchre Creek Fire began shortly after noon Wednesday, with fire rapidly progressing up a steep, densely-treed unit belonging to South Coast Lumber. Smoke was visible from the Curry County Fairgrounds and other locations along the Rogue River in Gold Beach.

Firefighters contained the blaze by Friday afternoon, limiting it to 56 acres, according to Derwin Boggs of the Coos Forest Protective Association forester.

“Fortunately, it’s one of the cooler days,” said Brookings Fire Chief Jim Watson. “If they’re going to have a fire — not that you ever want a fire — today’s one of the days to do it. It’s not as hot (as it’s been) and the wind’s not as whipping as it has been.”

Temperatures are forecast to remain in the mid-60s until Monday when they go back up. No rain is in sight.

A mild winter — Curry County only received about half the rainfall it usually gets — a continued drought and high winds throughout the past couple of weeks has fire officials wondering how the season will pan out.

They aren’t very optimistic.

“From what I’ve discussed with Coos Forest Protective Association (CFPA) and other state chiefs, the outlook is we’re in the drought and if we don’t get rain soon, it could be a long fire season,” Watson said. “It’s unnaturally dry. Normally in June, we’re pretty green, but now we have a lot of brown. I don’t see anywhere in the extended forecast for any relief.”

The Oregon Department of Forestry placed Jefferson County into a high fire danger Wednesday afternoon, said Don Kendall, Curry County emergency services director.

That means no fires are allowed — anywhere — except for special burns associated with logging operations.

“Because it’s fire season, no fires are allowed,” Kendall said. “People need to be careful in the forest, do not smoke, don’t light a campfire, don’t light fireworks. If you see smoke, call it in; we’d rather turn around and go home than to not respond to a fire. Remember what Smoky says.”

The Gold Beach district is expected to go into a high fire warning, the most severe rating, early next week.

“That means it’s coming, it’s here, it’s going to do it to you,” Kendall said.

Officials said that had the Euchre Creek Fire occurred later in the summer, resources might not have been as rapidly deployed to the area, depending on the needs in other areas of the state — an issue that is increasingly brought up in federal legislative discussion.

Currently, the U.S. Forest Service spends 40 percent of its budget on firefighting, compared to 15 percent in the early 1990s.

This year, the agency expects to spend about $1.5 billion on fire suppression, and will probably overrun the fire budget by close to $500 million, according to a report released by the Department of the Interior. To keep up, the agency transfers funds from other forest management programs — including those intended to be spent on reducing fire danger.

Curry County Sheriff John Bishop worries about his already tight budget, as well.

“I have to pull road deputies off of patrol when we have a fire to help with road closures, evacuations and any other requirements we may have,” he said. “It often leads to 80-hour work weeks sometimes, and the overtime will kill what budget we do have.”

Reducing fire danger is among the goals of two federal legislative plans making their way through Congress, and of the newly-named Wild Rivers Coast Healthy Forest Collaborative, started by County Commissioner David Itzen. The 100-stakeholder group is taking a holistic look at the forest and hopes to get loggers back in the woods, entice new business related to the wood industry to the area and improve the health of forests and streams.

For more information on local fire conditions, visit http://www.coosfpa.net/. 

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