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Lightning strikes keep firefighters on guard

Fire personnel on the ground and in helicopters were scouting Curry County’s wilderness for possible lightning-sparked fires Friday afternoon as another series of thunderstorms rumbled through the region.

As of press time, no new major fires were reported. 

Earlier in the day, there was more good news than bad coming from behind fire lines east of Curry County as thousands of firefighters continued fighting tens of thousands of acres of wildfires that started almost two weeks ago.

There was a little rain Thursday — a welcome respite in the dry conditions feeding the Big Windy Complex Fire 25 miles northwest of Grants Pass and creeping toward Curry County.

Fire officials have shortened the time in which they believe the fire will be extinguished, from October to September 1.

There is containment: 10 percent in the 14,364-acre Big Windy Complex Fire, whose three fires — the Big Windy, Jenny and Calvert Peak — have merged.

And there are no evacuation orders in Curry County. The only threatened structures are at the Rogue River Ranch and the Zane Gray historic site, where firefighters are prepared if the fire gets that far.

“They seems to be behaving a little bit,” said Sheriff John Bishop, adding that a few small fires were ignited by lightning and extinguished Wednesday and Thursday nights. “The weather’s really helped them. They’re just concerned that if the weather changes, it might try to act up. But they’re doing a good job and keeping it somewhat contained.”

The bad news is that Thursday night’s lightning storm didn’t bring enough moisture inland — and ignited about seven fires on the way on Powers-Gold Beach District land, presumably in an area between Lobster Creek and Powers.

Bishop said helicopter crews were able to get in the air Friday afternoon to determine the number and size of those fires.

“All are small, all are under an acre,” Bishop said. “And none are due to the Big Windy, and none of them are very big at this time. Hopefully, the farther west they are, the more moisture they’re getting.”

The Douglas Complex Fire, burning north of Glendale, has forced evacuations in its 44,000-acre path, but is 32 percent contained. And the Labrador fire northwest of Cave Junction has stalled this week, partially because of smoke from the other fires dampening its progress. It has burned 2,020 acres.

Altogether, they have burned more than 71,000 acres, and 5,476 firefighters are on scene.

Fire officials said Friday the only opportunity they have to control the fire is through indirect attack on existing roads and ridgetops. Steep terrain is forcing firefighters to build burnout areas in front of the advancing fires, temperature inversions are keeping aircraft grounded and fire conditions on the ground are labeled “extreme.”

According to Megan Ehnle, a spokeswoman for the Oregon Department of Forestry, the fires in Southwest Oregon are still the highest priority — Level 4 — in the nation because of those complexities. No other state’s fires are at that level.

Another piece of good news is that fire activity elsewhere in the nation isn’t drawing on crews fighting fires here.

“Within the Northwest, fire activity has largely been centered on Oregon,” said Rod Nichols of the Oregon Department of Forestry. “This has meant that regional resources – fire crews, aircraft — have been generally available to our state. In previous years, when neighboring states also were experiencing active fire seasons along with Oregon, the resources were much harder to come by.”

Residents near Galice have been warned to prepare for evacuation, notably those with special needs, mobile property, pets and livestock. Thunderstorms were expected to move through the area over the weekend, with winds reaching gusts of 35 miles an hour.

But firefighters were able to add almost a mile of “black line” with burnout operations along the southeast and working toward the Rogue River and north west flanks late this week, along with areas around Rogue River Ranch and the Zane Gray historic cabin.

Closures remain the same, with Bear Camp and Burnt Ridge roads blocked by Oregon National Guards,  and the river itself, about 10 miles upstream of Blossom Bar east of Agness.

Level 2 evacuation orders — meaning residents must be prepared to leave if asked — were put in place in an area encircling Marial Lodge along the Rogue River east to Grave Creek, then north and west on the Marial byway and back to the lodge.

Higher humidity and lower temperatures have dampened fire activity, although fire is still expected to make short runs through the crowns of the forest. If wind gusts continue, fire officials say spotting could occur up to .7 miles from the fires.

Lightning could also become an issue, but weather forecasters are predicting a 30 percent chance of brief, but heavy rainfall this weekend.

Firefighting teams are also working on massive fires in Idaho and northern and southern California. The Orleans and Salmon River fires in northern California have burned about 17,000 acres.

And the Aspen Fire northwest of Fresno has burned about 22,000 acres and is 85 percent contained. The Silver Fire in San Bernardino County southeast of Los Angeles has burned 16,000 acres, destroyed 26 structures and is 25 percent contained.

By August 6, a total of 817 wildfires had burned 144,688 acres in Oregon. 

In all, 2.5 million acres has burned nationwide.

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