Tendrils of the amoeba-like Klondike Fire stretched from Josephine County into Curry County last weekend, prompting the public to demand why the 5,281-acre fire isn’t being addressed more aggressively.
Curry County Sheriff John Ward said Saturday there are firefighters on the ground and in the air, and officials are fighting to get more resources, but other large fires in the West are taking priority. The fire danger on all five ranger districts on the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest is “extreme.”
Two crews, with 94 firefighters, are combatting the blaze.
State Rep. David Brock Smith, R-Port Orford, noted the 747 Global Supertanker airplane has also been summoned to the 17,369-acre Garner Complex Fire south and east of Cave Junction. The Oregon Department of Forestry last fire season penned an agreement with the Colorado-based company to provide assistance when needed.
While it can carry a large volume of retardant, it can’t easily fly into the narrow valleys and steep terrain common in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness.
“It’s critical to have all of the tools necessary to battle these wildfires and protect the health, life and safety of not only our communities and their residents, but also the firefighters and emergency personnel putting themselves in harm’s way,” he said.
The fires in Southeast Oregon started July 15 when a thunderstorm blew through the area, sparking 68 wildfires.
The Klondike and Granite fires merged — and are now called the Klondike Fire — over the weekend on the border of Josephine and Curry counties, 27 aerial miles northeast of Brookings. It is nine miles northwest of Selma, and burning closer to Agness and Gold Beach than it is to Brookings. Monday it began burning its way north toward the Illinois River, and Tuesday afternoon, hopped over the river, where it has now burned about 100 acres, fire reports read.
The situation is eerily similar to that of last summer’s Chetco Bar Fire.
The Klondike Fire is in burning in the scars of the 2002 Biscuit and 2017 Chetco Bar fires, Smith said. The Chetco Bar Fire got its start, too, in the burn scar of the Biscuit Fire, which some believed contributed to its spread to within 5 miles of Brookings city limits last year.
The speed at which the Chetco Bar Fire spread was enough to spike anxiety among many in town when the Klondike Fire ignited July 15.
The Klondike Fire is burning at about the same size of the Chetco Bar Fire when Chetco Effect winds blew it up to twice its size in one weekend last August, jumping containment lines, rivers and roads.
Tuesday morning, the fire spotted across the Illinois River and established itself in the York Creek drainage, where it grew to about 100 acres, the daily forest service report reads. Work is ongoing along the road to Pearsoll Peak and others for use as containment lines.
The Chetco Bar Fire scar to the west and the Labrador Fire scar to the east could play to firefighter’s advantage, too, providing them a mostly clear area with sparse fuel.
And the terrain is again making it difficult, if not impossible in many areas, to gain access.
“This area is very rugged and is unsafe to put fire crews into the fire area,” a fire report reads. “A team of fire experts has been assembled to develop a long-term strategy for controlling these fires. Yesterday a large helicopter was used to cool hot spots on the Klondike fire, but increasing smoke limited its use in the afternoon.”
For many who who survived last year’s catastrophic wildfire, the information provided is like experiencing deja vu.
The Chetco Bar Fire ultimately burned 191,125 acres, torched six homes and 20 outbuildings, forced the evacuation of thousands and virtually killed the summer tourism season, business owners have said.
Fire officials with the U.S. Forest Service say hot and dry weather is expected to continue, allowing for all the fires to grow. But efforts are noticeably far more aggressive than they were last summer, fire officials said.
“Saturday, July 21, the Medford Air Tanker base hit 1 million gallons of retardant used,” a U.S. Forest Service report reads. “What makes this number so astounding? This is normally a number seen at the end of the fire season, not the start, demonstrating the extraordinary effort underway to stop the fires in Southern Oregon.”
The Klondike Fire is considered part of the Natchez Complex — named for the Natchez Fire — even though the two are miles apart. The Natchez Fire, 15 miles southeast of Cave Junction, had burned 1,911 acres as of Tuesday.
Like the Chetco Bar Fire, the Klondike Fire is burning in steep, inaccessible terrain, largely within the Kalmiopsis Wilderness. Firefighters are using existing roads, fire scars and natural barriers to control its growth, forest service officials said in a Tuesday morning report. Bulldozers are being used to open roads from Illinois River Road west to the wilderness boundary south of the fire, and helicopters dropped 8,000 gallons of water on the fire Sunday.
Monday, firefighters were protecting structures near Oak Flat in Josephine County, where hundreds of residents were ordered to evacuate the day before. Helicopters dumped water in an attempt to hold the fire to the south and west of the Illinois River, fallers removed hazardous trees from existing roads and dozer lines, and bulldozers removed vegetation to strengthen the control lines.
Weather on scene is expected to remain hot and dry, with temperatures in the 90s. Humidity will remain low at approximately 15 percent, and winds will be light, at 5 to 6 mph. No precipitation is expected in the forecast over the next few days.
The thin smoke that hovered over the coast all weekend has dissipated for now, although there were anecdotal reports of people holing up in their houses to escape thicker smoke in some areas.