Sheriff John Bishop met with members of the Oregon National Guard near Agness Wednesday night to establish road closures in areas immediately affected by wildfires raging through Josephine, Douglas and parts of Curry counties.
Smoke from the Douglas Complex fire blankets the skies over Glendale. Photo courtesy of Oregon Department of Forestry
The agency is providing him and other county sheriffs with 150 guardsmen to secure roads blocked due to fire and evacuations, where fire camps have been established and potentially dangerous areas.
“That’ll relieve me,” Bishop said, noting that he has had two deputies up Bear Camp Road since the fires broke out July 26.
Three fires are raging through southwestern Oregon, and have consumed more than 30,000 acres as of Friday afternoon. Fires are located in rugged terrain, some of which was burned in the Biscuit Fire in 2002 that burned 500,000 acres, the largest conflagration in state history.
That fire burned so hot, much of the soil was rendered sterile, but what growth has emerged in the last decades is providing fuel to the trees that remain. Dead snags left from that fire are also presenting dangerous situations for firefighters, Bishop said.
And the calm weather is forecast to change in the next few days, he added.
“It’s blowing away from us now, but with a weather change? It could come right back on us.”
The Big Windy Complex is of utmost concern in Bishop’s mind, primarily because it reached the Curry County border last Tuesday (July 30). It is comprised of the Big Windy Fire in Josephine County and the Jenny and Calvert Peak fires in Curry County, which are within 2 miles of the Winkle Bar — site of the historic Zane Gray cabins — on the Rogue River.
While not as large — 5,132 acres — as the Douglas Complex fire raging to the southwest of that, firefighters have only intermittently been able to attack it from the air, as a temperature inversion has kept smoke low to the ground and prevented aircraft from flying.
“And it’s burning in a brand-new area,” Bishop said. “This place hasn’t burned in a long time. There’s a lot of fuel.”
Other conflagrations of concern include the Douglas Complex fire that has burned 28,740 acres 7 miles north of Glendale; the Labrador Fire 25 miles southwest of Grants Pass that has burned an estimated 2,020 acres and is and partly in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness.
Other fires in the area include the Whiskey Complex and Brimstone fires, which have collectively burned about 9,000 acres. In total, almost 500 homes are threatened.
So far, there is no end in sight.
“This is going to be a long-term event,” Bishop said last week. “One month, two, maybe even three.”
Another challenge facing law enforcement officials is reports of people telling residents to evacuate. Official orders will only come from firefighters, police officers or National Guard soldier going door-to-door and in an official vehicle.
Tuesday night, fire officials closed a section of the Rogue River 3 miles above Blossom Bar to ensure rafters are safe. Teams cleared an additional 21.5 miles of the Rogue River Trail for hikers; it is now closed.
Guardsmen will keep Bear Camp Road near Agness closed, but their primary duties are centered around fire activity in Cave Junction, Grants Pass and Merlin, where command posts have been established.
And the American Red Cross, stationed in Glendale, have as of Friday evening provided 35 overnight stays, served 2,216 meals and distributed 1,815 items, notably small-particulate-matter masks.
Fire crews are also busy trying to protect recreation areas, 18 structures at Black Bar Lodge, Zane Grey Historical Cabin, Marial Lodge and Rogue River Ranch; cultural resources; threatened & endangered species habitat, fisheries and wildlife.
Conditions, while hot and dry, are “not even close” to what they were like when the Biscuit Fire burned for months 11 years ago, Bishop said. He spent most of last week traveling between Merlin, Muriel and Cave Junction for briefings on the fires.
Air quality in Grants Pass, Cave Junction and Glendale, where the fires are the closest, was designated “hazardous” to the public. Those with respiratory or cardiac conditions are urged to stay indoors, and even healthy individuals are encouraged to avoid heavy exertion.
Some of Ashland’s Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s outdoor performances have been cancelled.
Hospitals in those areas have had a moderate increase in emergency room visits, primarily by patients with existing respiratory problems, said Grant Walker of Asante Hospitals.
But air on the Oregon coast is cool and clear, jet boat company owners reported Thursday afternoon.
Weather in the inland valleys is forecast for daytime temperatures in the high 80s and in the high 50s and low 60s at night. Winds are light — which is good and bad, as it hinders fire spread, but also does little to clear out thick smoke.
“It’s fine right now, but by the time I get home, it could completely change,” Bishop said. “There are a lot of ‘ifs’ right now.”