The Klondike Fire northeast of Brookings grew another 5,000 acres over the weekend, to 55,2487 acres, and the Taylor Creek Fire to 48,257 acres, after a cap of cold air holding them down dissipated and hotter temperatures and higher winds kicked in, fire officials said Tuesday.
The fire growth was anticipated, according to a fire briefing held in Agness Friday evening, where about 100 citizens gathered to learn about the fire 12 miles away. Their forecasts proved true.
“It was a long, tough night,” Illinois Valley Fire District Chief Dennis Hoke said Monday, of the previous night’s work. “The fire jumped the Illinois River Road. We are expecting another day of winds that will push this fire.”
The spot fire did indeed grow, to 1,200 acres Tuesday, and firefighters are trying to keep it at bay. If it reaches a containment line 4 miles away, more evacuations will ensue.
The Klondike Fire pushed south over the weekend with help from wind from the northeast, the fire webpage, inciweb, reported. Crews are protecting residences and recreation sites south of the river and communities southeast of the fire. Crews burned out areas around structures late Sunday, and Monday’s goal was to reduce the southward spread of the Klondike Fire and work on additional contingency lines to the south.
“The fire continues to consume fuels between the Klondike and Taylor Creek fires,” the report reads. “Firefighters continue to strengthen the margin between the Klondike Fire and the communities of Selma, Wonder and Wilderville to the east.”
One incident fire crews did not anticipate: “I cannot get into the particulars,” Hoke said, “but a bulldozer operator had a gun pulled on him trying to plow a line to protect the homeowner and adjacent homeowners property.”
Smoke over Agness
Prior to Friday evening’s meeting in Agness, residents spoke amongst themselves of their frustration in not being allowed to cut trees, and the horrors of the fires that have burned in the area in the past two decades: Biscuit, Elliot Ridge, Blossom, Big Windy, Onion Mountain and the Cheto Bar. More than a few glanced south when the breeze picked up.
“It’s laying down,” a man said of the wispy smoke on the horizon. A half-hour earlier, a huge pyrocumulus cloud punctured the blue sky, a now-familiar sight meaning the fire had picked up in late-afternoon winds.
The Klondike Fire is burning about 28 miles southeast of Gold Beach, and the Taylor Creek Fire is curled up around its east and north flanks, about 12 miles from Agness.
The southeast edge of the Taylor Creek Fire, burning northwest of the Klondike, “will be challenging,” Incident Commander Rob Allen told the crowd. “We’re trying to keep them separate, using all the technology we can. Our biggest problem was that cap (of cold air) has made it so smoky we can’t fly. We’ve used drones to find where the fire is going.”
Crews from Australia, New Zealand and Alaska arrived this week to relieve the Pacific Northwest Team that has been on the front lines for the past two weeks.
County Commissioner Court Boice, who lives in Agness, said firefighters were slightly more concerned about Gold Beach and the Taylor Creek Fire, because it could spread down the east-to-west drainages.
They have contingency plans. If the fire reaches the containment lines built to the west, operations will reorganize in Gold Beach. A second containment line is 6 miles west of the first.
“Here, there are two east-west-facing drainages,” Allen said. “It’ll be a little hard (for the fire) to make a long run like the Chetco Bar Fire did with no topography to break it up. Here, there’s a topographical barrier: the Chetco Bar Fire scar and a line on the far west.”
Fire crews are still fighting both fires on their eastern flanks, where they burn dangerously close to towns along U.S. 199. Bulldozers and crews have back-burned along Onion Mountain Road to create a line over which they hope the fire won’t jump to the southeast.
“It’s all weather dependent,” Pacific Northwest Team member Joe Tone said Friday. “When it reaches the tops of ridges, we’re pounding the snot out of the ridge, beating it up with everything we’ve got.”
Firefighters had hoped to even up the southwest edge of the Klondike Fire this weekend, making it easier to control.
But the steep, rugged backcountry — so remote there aren’t even hiking trails — makes it too dangerous for firefighters to fight it directly.
“We’re trying to stop the fire at the smallest footprint we can, safely,” Tone said. “Everything has to be right, so we can get firefighters out in case the fire changes. We’re constantly evaluating that.”
Feller-bunchers, masticators, dozers and other equipment are chewing up trees along existing U.S. Forest Service roads to both create wider containment lines and protect crews from falling debris.
Tone noted, too, the irony of last year’s rehabilitation crews covering up the containment lines and roads they’d created to fight the Chetco Bar Fire. This summer, they’ve spent extra time — and money — reopening those same areas to access these two fires.
Firefighters have spent the past week enforcing the line from Bear Camp Road to Snow Camp. Bear Camp Road remains closed.
People at Friday’s briefing in Agness wanted assurance the fires were being fought differently than the Chetco Bar Fire, which many claim the forest service let grow until a Chetco Effect wind pattern blew it up, allowing it to travel 18 miles in three days.
“We didn’t get out ahead or do enough firing out, like we are now,” Allen said of back-burning efforts on the Chetco Bar Fire. “And we have permission to put dozers, retardant in the wilderness. We were told to do everything we can. Everyone in the forest service is behind us 100 percent.”
When asked if they would replant the area using grass instead of trees, Allen said he wished they could because “we keep coming back,” he said. The Chetco Bar Fire burn scar wasn’t rehabilitated as thoroughly as most, either. There was a lack of seedlings to replant, the area is so vast, private timber companies remain busy extracting burned logs, and the agencies had to consider erosion and runoff in their rehabilitation plans.
The fuels that have grown in the scar of the 2002 Biscuit Fire — primarily brush and grasses — are different than those in the unburned areas of the backcountry, making the fire behave differently in both sectors.
“The weather will determine how it will burn,” Tone said. “We’ve been running a lot of predictions every day: maximum flame lengths, spotting distances. It has the potential (to grow) if it gets the right weather.”
Allen noted that crews are getting everything they need, despite the fact they are competing with other major fires throughout the West for those resources.
“The things we’ve been short on lately is middle management,” he said. “We need task force managers, division supervisors to keep things moving. We’ve got a lot of fires going on across the nation.”
These two fires are, like many others, at “Planning Level 5,” he said. “And there is no Planning Level 6.”
Expected this week
For the next 72 hours, the fires are expected to fester slowly, winds will shift from the northeast to the northwest, and firefighters will try to keep one step — or two or three — ahead.
Crews are trying to keep fire from cresting the tops of ridgelines. When that happens, burning debris can roll down the other side of the mountain — called a rollback — igniting that side of the hill and the one on the other side of the valley.
“It’s a complicated puzzle to put together,” Allen admitted, adding that historic records indicates there is a 37 percent chance of a Chetco Effect striking this time of year.
“But then the graph shoots right up,” he said of late August and September. “Mother Nature can throw curveballs at you.”
“Everyone might take a sigh of relief, thinking that we’re good at what we do,” Tone said. “But Mother Nature has a big impact. I wish we could tell you one way or another.”
“That’s the unfortunate part of our job,” said Public Information Officer Celeste Prescott. “We plan for the worst, but hope for the best.”
Klondike: 55,248 acres, 15 percent contained, 521 crews
Taylor Creek: 48,257 acres, 45 percent contained, 1,102 crews
Highlights expected: “Monsoonal moisture moving into the area could result in thunderstorms, producing gusty winds, which could be troublesome. Expect fire activity to increase.”