The Big Windy, Douglas Complex and Labrador wildfires in the Rogue River Valley are no longer the nation’s No. 1 priority, now that huge conflagrations have burned luxury resort homes and forced thousands of Idaho residents to flee what U.S. Forest Service chief Tom Tidwell is calling the “new normal.”
“It’s just what we’re seeing everywhere,” he said. “Any more, this is becoming the normal type of fire behavior for this time of year.”
The Idaho fire is now the nation’s top priority because it’s burning close to homes and subdivisions. The town of Hailey has 7,900 inhabitants, Ketchum is home to 2,700 people and Sun Valley, a posh ski resort of 1,400 year-round residents.
Here, firefighters this weekend continued to hold burnout lines against the slow-growing Big Windy Fire in northeast Curry County, despite higher winds that kicked up this weekend.
The fire has now grown to 18,570 acres, with firefighters working to contain it south of the Rogue River utilizing a combination of direct attacks and using the river as a natural barrier.
“They’re growing a little bit, but the lines are holding,” said Curry County Sheriff John Bishop. “They do have a little bit more active fire, but it’s well within the lines.”
Stronger, hot winds were expected Tuesday that could result in spot fires and short runs in the higher branches of trees, said incident commander Ed Lewis.
It might have been a different scenario if not for the unusual weather this past month, he said. Lower than usual temperatures and winds and a temperature inversion in the valley are also credited for keeping the fire more at bay. The Big Windy Fire is now 20 percent contained.
“I think the weather’s really helped us; we’re seeing the benefits of that,” Bishop said. “Hopefully it holds.”
But winds between 8 and 15 miles per hour contributed to the additional spread of 2,870 acres over the weekend. Smoke was visible on the southern horizon and reported to be thicker farther up the Chetco River.
Musicians from the Grants Pass High School band even held its season’s halftime program and competitive marching techniques practice in Brookings this past week to escape the smoke in the valley.
“Band director Travis Moddison said conditions in Grants Pass were “extremely hazardous,” leading school officials to seek out an area with cleaner air.
Fire officials said Sunday that air operations were again hindered by smoke, leaving most firefighting activities to ground crews.
“Many miles of fireline have been constructed, but there is a lot more to accomplish before the fire will be contained,” Lewis said. “A lot of work goes into building fire lines, but they cannot be counted toward containment until they are completely secure.”
Firefighters are building burnout lines away from the fire’s edge when it’s not safe to do so directly adjacent to the fire. That strategy is used when fire behavior is very active with flame heights of 4 feet or higher, a fast-moving fire; heavy amounts of fuel; or very steep terrain — all of which firefighters have been facing since lightning ignited numerous blazes in the valley July 26.
Temperatures reached triple digits in Grants Pass Monday and Tuesday, but a storm system moving into valley areas Wednesday is hoped to bring some respite from high temperatures and low humidity.
“That’s a good thing because it’s not as hot and dry,” said Stan Hinatsu of the U.S. Forest Service. “But it’s a bad thing because it brings the possibility of thunderstorms.”
The Douglas Complex Fire that started about 7 miles west of Glendale is now 48,383 acres in size and keeping residents from their homes in nearby Galice. The Labrador Fire, 25 miles south of Grants Pass, has grown by 3 acres in the past week, to 2,023 acres.
The Big Windy Fire was the nation’s No. 1 priority since it broke out last month, but wind-driven fires in forested land between Boise and Pocatello, Idaho have since surpassed that.
“These fires (locally) have behaved themselves so well, I’d expect (Idaho) to become the No. 1 priority rather than here,” Bishop said. “They’ve got a mess over there.”
So far, officials here have been able to retain their resources despite major fires burning throughout the West.
“We’re feeling pretty good about the resources we have,” Hinatsu said. “Everyone wants more, obviously, and we understand there are other needs. We have a limited supply of crews, engines and helicopters, and there are needs in other places. Anywhere there’s large fires, resources are in demand. They understand we still have another month of fire potential in this country.”
The Sun Valley, Idaho, fire, also started by lightning, is one of 34 major wildfires burning in 11 states. Most are related to long-term drought conditions; the Big Windy, Douglas Complex and Labrador fires in southwestern Oregon, however, are burning intensely due to accumulated forest fuels and inaccessible terrain.
“It’s going to be quite the fire season for some time to come,” said Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest public affairs officer Virginia Gibbons.