Three wildfires encroaching on the northeastern border of Curry County have been named the top priority in the nation and might not be extinguished until October, Sheriff John Bishop told county commissioners at an emergency meeting Monday.
Bishop was meeting today (Wednesday) with National Guard officials to coordinate efforts in the Agness area.
The Big Windy, Labrador and Douglas Complex fires were among 54 that ignited early Friday morning during a dry thunderstorm. Most of those ignited were less than 20 acres in size and extinguished, but others merged into these three fires Gov. John Kitzhaber has designated “conflagrations.”
“This is exactly how the Biscuit Fire started,” Bishop said. “And (fire officials) are saying, ‘Take the conditions of the Biscuit Fire and times it by 20 percent.’ Whatever the Biscuit didn’t burn, this one’s going to clean up after. They are growing, and they are not contained.”
Falling snags are hampering firefighters, and low-lying trees and shrubs that have grown since the Biscuit Fire, which burned 500,000 acres throughout the summer and fall of 2011, are providing fuel into the taller trees.
Bishop, who has been working 18- to 20-hour days since Saturday, said he has flown over the Biscuit Fire area numerous times, most recently two weeks ago.
“We thought, ‘If this ever catches fire, we’re in trouble,’” he said. “It’s hot; it’s dry. It’s a wasteland. It’s September conditions up there. What and where burns is up to debate. It changes on a daily basis.
“(National) crews are tired already, and the fire season’s just begun,” he added. “They’ve been fighting fires since May.”
Fire on the mountains
Bishop told commissioners it was originally difficult to determine the size of each fire, as heavy smoke and a temperature inversion in the Illinois Valley prevented aircraft from taking off all weekend. Helicopters were able to get in the air Monday.
Satellite photos depict nothing but smoke, so information came from firefighters on the ground. Smoky skies have been reported as far south as Lake County, Calif., about an hour north of San Francisco.
The Big Windy fire, which concerns Bishop the most, is located in some of the most rugged terrain in the United States, he said. That conflagration, burning on Bureau of Land Management land, crossed into Curry County Tuesday. It is located in the farthest northeast corner of the county, 25 miles northwest of Grants Pass. About 150 fire personnel are battling that blaze.
The Big Windy Complex consists of three fires: Big Windy at the south, Calvert Peak on the west and the Jenny fire to the north, that have burned a total of 2,000 acres and is zero percent contained.
A fire command center for that incident has been set up in Merlin.
“Progress is going to be extremely slow and hazardous,” Bishop said. “It’s a lot of coordination to make sure we keep ahead of this.”
Fires in Kelsey Creek drainage have burned to the Rogue River in the Wild and Scenic area. Two fires, one along Bear Camp Road and a finger of the Labrador fire, are expected to reach Curry County within a week or so, Bishop said Tuesday afternoon.
The largest wildfire, the Douglas Complex, has burned more than 21,000 acres as of Tuesday and is 2 percent contained. Twenty-one thousand acres is equivalent to 840 Azalea Parks.
The Douglas Complex is located 7 miles north of Glendale, where fires have forced the evacuation of 105 residences, put hundreds more on alert, closed roads and even disrupted train traffic. More than 1,020 firefighters were working the fire Tuesday, including 38 hand crews, 29 fire engines, two bulldozers and eight water tenders on the ground and 11 helicopters in the air.
The Labrador fire, burning on U.S. Forest Service land, originally estimated to be 3,200 acres and now believed to be 870 acres in size, is located 13 miles northwest of Cave Junction, and is burning in part in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness.
Estimates on Tuesday afternoon indicated explosive fires, including the Whiskey and Brimstone fires farther east, have burned more than 30,000 acres in the region.
Incident command centers for those fires are in Lake Selmac, east of Cave Junction, and Grants Pass.
Areas of concern
Bear Camp Road near Agness has been closed, and fire has reached part of the Rogue River. Officials hope to use the North Fork of the Rogue River and Bear Camp Road as natural firebreaks. Challenges firefighters face include steep, unforgiving terrain; fire and public traffic on open sections of Bear Camp Road and variable winds in the river corridor, federal officials wrote in a brief Tuesday morning.
Rogue River Ranch was evacuated as a precaution. Additionally, “hotshot” firefighters were deployed Monday to protect the Zane Grey Cabin, a log home on the National Register of Historic Places near the Winkle Bar on the Rogue River.
Bishop said fire experts are keeping an eye on river activity, as some 125 rafters a day use the river. Grave Creek, a 30-mile tributary of the Rogue River, was slated to be shut down near Galice at midnight July 31.
Bishop is also concerned about the unknown numbers of hikers and campers that might be on the Rogue River Trail.
“We have no idea how many people are on that trail,” he said. “That’s some of the farthest, most remote places in Curry County.”
Another unknown of serious concern is wind.
As of Monday, the wind was coming from the northeast, making Curry County air smoky. Ashes on cars were reported as far west as Crescent City, and smoke reduced visibility to 10 to 20 feet in Cave Junction earlier this week, Bishop said. Air quality is reported to be “unhealthy.”
Forecasts are calling for cooler temperatures throughout the week, but it doesn’t mean other factors, notably the Chetco Effect, won’t take effect, Bishop said.
“If the wind shifts, it could slow it way down,” he told commissioners. “The Forest Service has been worried about this for awhile. But what we don’t need is another dry thunderstorm or the Chetco Effect.”
The Chetco Effect occurs when a low pressure system from California sucks a high-pressure system from the north. Winds then head west from the valley — sometimes at great rates of speed — pushing fire and smoke ahead of them.
Travelers are encouraged to avoid Highway 199 if possible, as periodic smoke is making the narrow, winding canyon road that much more difficult to negotiate, Bishop said.
According to John Stephens, maintenance manager for the state Department of Transportation in Grants Pass, there are no restrictions on Highway 199, although some local roads closer to Cave Junction are closed to accommodate fire camps. Drivers should use caution and use their headlights.
Stretching the ranks
Not only are the fires of concern to the safety and health of residents throughout the area, they are stretching even thinner the ranks of deputies Bishop has to protect the county.
His Marine Deputy and a volunteer were staged in Agness Monday, leaving Bishop with three to respond to calls.
“We’re just going day-to-day,” he said. “There will be overtime. But we’re coping.”
County commissioners asked about his resources because the cash-strapped county has nothing to offer in the event of a major fire, earthquake, tsunami, flood or other unforeseen disaster. Bishop said he believes federal funds could come available if the county is severely affected in the coming months.
Local fire departments, mostly run by volunteers, don’t have enough personnel to send firefighters to the scene. Chris Kline, a forester with the Coos Forest Protection Agency in Gold Beach, is at the incident, said acting fire chief Jim Watson.
Firefighters and other emergency responders likely wouldn’t be called upon until the fire gets closer, but it is Bishop’s job to evaluate the danger and keep Curry County residents safe.
He sent Search and Rescue volunteers to the area Monday night to help with evacuations in Douglas and Josephine counties.
Bishop said the county is “a ways off” from needing to declare an emergency. And he jokingly added that residents in Coos County are “blowing the other way to keep the wildfires away.”
“We’ll be able to get some help,” Bishop said. “I don’t know how much, or how long, until we see what the fire’s going to do.”