The Gila Regulars crew clears fuels from around Bear Camp Road so that it will better serve as firebreak for the Big Windy Fire burning on the eastern edge of Curry County Tuesday. Photo courtesy of Oregon Department of Forestry
Wildfires plaguing the Rogue River Valley are laying low for now and firefighters are hoping weather forecasts calling for possible rainfall throughout the rest of the week will help their efforts under way since July 26.
"We're just one day at a time," said Sheriff John Bishop, who has been working closely with federal and state agencies monitoring fire activity. "They're working extremely hard; they're tired, but they're pumping away."
Conditions haven't changed much in the heavily forested valleys north of Cave Junction, as firefighters establish lines to block the fire as it approaches.
Firefighters cannot access on foot the steep terrain in which the Big Windy and Douglas Complex fires are burning, and are concentrating efforts on building fire lines and blackening areas to slow its progress.
Temperature inversions in the valley have kept smoke low to the ground in the morning - and slowed fire progress - but are at times keeping firefighting airplanes and helicopters grounded, as well.
Bishop said his resources are being stretched thin.
"We have to make sure the roadblocks are in place; people are trying to run the roadblocks," he said. "We have to keep the information going, smoke issues crop up, we have to coordinate with the BLM, the Forest Service. andhellip;"
Some of his work has entailed rumor control.
"That's all we do," he said. "Nobody has anything to do, or they have too much time on their hands. There have been all kinds of rumors."
The latest one is that Agness is about to be evacuated.
"Agness is not under any order whatsoever," Bishop stated. "It's still a good way away from Agness. It's not in any danger. There not even Level 1 - make sure you're ready, keep your eye on all the news - nor do I foresee it coming that far."
"The fire is way, way, way upriver," said Bill MCNair, an owner of Jerry's Rogue Jets in Gold Beach. "It's premature to be talking about evacuation."
The only places under evacuation orders are those closest to the fires in Josephine County - and some of those people are being allowed to return home, said Curry County Emergency Coordinator Don Kendall.
Bear Camp Road is closed, as is the Rogue River Trail and the wild section of the Rogue River between Mule and Grave creeks. Jet boats originating from Gold Beach don't go that far, ending their farthest excursions at Blossom Bar about 10 miles downstream of the closest closure.
And the Curry County 4H Lobster Creek Summer Camp, slated Aug. 22 to 25 has been cancelled as a precautionary measure.
"Our state representatives have advised us to err on the side of caution to make camper safety our number one priority," said Michelle Carrillo, 4H program coordinator. "The decision to cancel one of our flagship events of the year did not come easily. We've learned that air quality up at camp was smoky in the mornings and unpredictable at two weeks out."
The Big Windy Complex - the one that concerns Bishop the most - is comprised of three fires that, as of Tuesday morning, had burned a total of 10,841 acres. They include the 7,572-acre Big Windy Fire, the 3,092-acre Jenny Fire and the 177-acre Calvert Peak Fire. The Josephine Complex fires burning farther east have burned more than 50,000 acres in the area.
It's difficult to predict fire behavior, as much depends on the weather.
"Who knows what'll happen with the wind," Bishop said. "They're building good fire lines using Bear Camp Road. I think the fire will burn more in a northerly direction."
"The fires are going to grow in size because we're unable to get to them," Kendall said. "So we're laying back and creating a fire break ahead of the fire."
A weather system forecast to move through the area in the next few days calls for a chance of rain that might, at least, improve air quality.
Conditions in the valley are smoky, with low visibility in the morning when temperatures are cooler, and increasing dramatically as they rise, fire reports indicate.
"It's hazy," said Helen Carpino, a long-time employee at Taylor's Sausage in Cave Junction. She said some customers are coughing in the smoke. "There's about a mile or 2 visibility. But I watched the Biscuit Fire come right over Eight Dollar Mountain; that was kind of scary."
The American Red Cross has been distributing thousands of fine-particulate masks to residents breathing air that has been alternatively deemed "unhealthy" and occasionally "hazardous."
The National Weather Service specifically notes dry thunderstorms are possible over the area Wednesday morning with a slight chance of rainfall and areas of smoke throughout the rest of the week. Lower temperatures expected throughout the southwest portion of the state could also help in fighting fires.
Although weather conditions are becoming increasingly unstable, low winds, ranging from 5 to 7 miles per hour, should keep conditions stable, the most recent Oregon Forestry Department report reads.
Valley residents have been traveling to the coast to take advantage of cleaner air, as well.
"We're taking advantage of a crisis," McNair said. "It's bringing people over to the coast."
Communications between all involved has become much smoother, as well, Kendall said.
"Things have kind of settled down a little bit," he said. "We're watching things as they go on. We've got good information flowing."
Officials now have video conferencing systems set up between Grants Pass and the U.S. Forest Service office in Gold Beach for briefings.
DEQ representatives are working with local leaders to install an air-quality monitor in town to address any issues related to smoke. A location has yet to be determined.