A new firefighting team moved into the Curry County Fairgrounds this week to manage the Klondike Fire as part of plans to separate its operations from those of the Taylor Creek Fire, both of which are burning in thick woods on the eastern border of the county.
“It is a long haul to get to the community of Agness from (the base in Lake Selmac),” said U.S. Forest Service Supervisor Merv George in an email to the Pilot. “For safety and fire complexity reasons, we placed an order for another Type 1 team. However, since there is so much fire activity going on in our country, there was no Type 1 teams available. They are all on assignments.”
They did, however, obtain a Type 2 team that most recently worked on the Umpqua National Forest’s Miles Fire and that arrived Thursday.
“Please know we are looking at all options to secure the northwest corner of the Klondike Fire,” George said. “We realize if that part goes farther north and gets past the Chetco Fire burn scar, this could be troublesome when the Chetco (Effect) winds come.”
Crews also plan to use aircraft — once the smoke clears — to keep that corner of the fire in check, he said.
“We really want to take care of the western side of the fire,” said Jessie Borden, public information officer at the Joint Information Center. “We really want people to feel comfortable, because of the Chetco Bar Fire, and to let people know you aren’t forgotten.”
That alone might help calm the anxiety of many who last year felt few resources were tapped in the 191,125-acre wildfire that burned six homes, 20 outbuildings, forced the evacuation of thousands and came within five miles of the Brookings city limits.
Many residents also felt the forest service should have attacked the fire when it was small, instead of allowing it to grow; Chetco Effect winds blew it out of control, spreading it 18 miles in three days.
The fires here
The Klondike and Taylor Creek fires, both of which were ignited in a lightning storm July 15, are burning primarily in Josephine County, but have encroached into Curry County and onto the burn scars of previous wildfires.
The Klondike Fire, burning east of Gold Beach and Snow Camp, has burned 59,105 acres. To the northeast of that, the Taylor Creek Fire has burned 49,695 acres; more than 1,500 firefighters are working on the two conflagrations.
“Extremely dry fuels and hot, dry weather have fueled the continued growth of both fires,” said Tom Kurth, incident commander from Alaska. “Steep, rugged, inaccessible terrain combined with limited resources due to intense wildfire activity across the Western United States has made suppression efforts a challenge. In addition, smoky conditions have limited the use of aircraft to suppress and monitor both fires.”
Both fires have spread into and are burning in the scar of the 2002 Biscuit Fire — contributing to their westward spread, Kurth said. The western edge of the Klondike Fire has also spread into the Kalmiopsis Wilderness and is bumping up against the burn scar from the 2017 Chetco Bar Fire. Fire managers plan to use it as a natural containment line.
While primary efforts are focused on protecting Selma and Cave Junction to the south and east of those fires, “excellent progress” is being made on contingency lines to the west, George said. Level 1 “be ready” evacuation status was established Thursday from Selma to the California border.
“Existing lines from past fires and roads are being tied to together to provide a barrier between the fire and Agness, Gold Beach and other communities on the coast,” Kurth said.
The contingency line will eventually be tied into the Illinois River and used, as needed, to check the spread of the fire if winds push the fire to the west.
A National Weather Service meteorologist has been assigned to the fire, as well, and forecast thunderstorms throughout the area earlier this week. They could be dangerous because they create “outflow” winds that can fell snags and other weakened trees or push the fire in various directions, making the area unsafe.
Smoke, high temperatures and low humidity aren’t the only challenges facing firefighters.
“As we get more fires across our country, it makes it harder for us to acquire new resources — or even hang on to the ones we have after they reach their 14-day shift limits,” George said. “California, Oregon and Washington have many fires going on and most of the priority is going to the areas with the most lives and property at risk.”
The forest service is currently fighting 112 fires in 11 Western states, including Alaska. The agency posted an ad on its website announcing job openings for people to suppress fires and work in fuels management on 19 national forests in Oregon and Washington.
Jobs include dispatching, operating on engine crews, fuels technicians, hand crews, helitack, hotshot crews, smokejumpers and prevention.
He added that 4,810 people are on the ground working to extinguish the local fires.
“There is steady progress being made to extinguish these fires,” George said. “They’re giving it their all to get these fires out for us. All of our land management agencies continue to work together to pool our limited resources to get these fires out.”
At the fair
Curry County Fairgrounds officials this month were gearing up for the upcoming Brewfest, September’s dahlia show and the Kingston Trio concert — the fair’s own fundraiser — which are now all in flux. Regular club meetings, as well, will have to relocate, said Fairgrounds Manager Nikki Sparks.
As last year, Docia Sweet Hall will be used as the fire command center and firefighters will have tents spread all over the fairgrounds and high school football field to the north.
“This one they’re sending more people,” Sparks said. “Last year we started at 400. This time, we’re being told 600, and then it’s rumored to be 1,200. There will be a lot more firefighters here, and they’re coming from all over. They said it could be four days to four weeks or more — it could be all the way through October. We just cleared the calendar.”
The agencies pay the rental costs of occupying the fairgrounds, but don’t pay for revenue lost for events that had to be canceled.
“They don’t really care (about the cost),” Sparks said. “They just tell us what they need.”
The fairgrounds was reimbursed, too, for the thrice-daily catered meals they received last year, too, but this year, crews are bringing their own porta-potties and kitchens — for now.
“We’re ‘fire central’; we’re the only game in town,” Sparks said. “We’ve done it so many times now, we’re old hats at it.
“I feel badly for (event promoters), but the firefighters have to take precedent,” she added. “They’re here to save our town.”
Reach Jane Stebbins at firstname.lastname@example.org .