Crews slow pace of wildfires' growth

Firefighters made progress Friday on some of the fires burning in southwest Oregon, keeping the fires' growth minimal. Officials estimated Friday that the region's fires covered 40,230 acres combined, with 4,493 people engaged in battling them.

"The fires are slightly more active today because it's hotter, drier and windier, but there are no major problems," Don Ferguson, public information officer for the Joint Information Center, said Friday.

Northern California fires

The Shelly and Boulder fires making up the Salmon River Complex in Northern California's Klamath National Forest had burned 1,500 acres by Friday afternoon, according to Ken Sandusky, public affairs officer for the Klamath National Forest.

The fires exploded from 70 acres to 1,200 acres Thursday, and officials expect the fires to continue growing. The complex was listed as 5 percent contained late Friday.

The fires are burning in heavy timber in inaccessible terrain, "and burning conditions have made it a very complex event," Sandusky said. "It's probably going to be a long-term event."

An interagency fire incident team from Southern California was expected to arrive Friday to take over management of the fire, Sandusky reported.

"The fires are not big yet in terms acreage, but where they're burning, and their proximity to other fires in the area makes these fires more complex than just their size alone would show," he said, referring to the Orleans Complex, which includes the Butler fire and Dance fire burning in the Six Rivers National Forest.

That complex has topped 1,000 acres, but fire officials announced late Friday they had achieved containment on the Dance fire. The Butler fire was listed at zero containment.

Ferguson said the fires had shown only moderate growth during the day. That followed the trend set Thursday evening and Friday morning, as cooler temperatures set in.

"Overnight the fires only grew a little bit, and that was largely due to the atmospheric conditions and relatively high humidity," said Ferguson.

The Whiskey Complex burning near Tiller grew just 237 acres since yesterday, and containment on the 4,185-acre complex was estimated at 18 percent.

"A couple hundred acres of growth on a fire of that size isn't much, and that feels pretty good," Ferguson said.

The Brimstone fire, burning approximately 10 miles northwest of Merlin, experienced zero growth overnight and is considered 25 percent contained.

"We have a fire line around it, but that's different than calling it contained," Ferguson said. "It's just a hand line a few feet wide, but we have hose around it."

The Douglas Complex, the largest of the roughly 75 fires burning in the region, covers 32,535 acres and is 15 percent contained. It is now growing by 4,000 acres from Thursday to Friday. There are now 2,337 working to contain the fire.

"It's getting to be a rather large fire," Ferguson said.

"The south end of that fire near Grave Creek is problematic," Ferguson said. "It's a steep, tough place to fight a fire, and we don't have containment there. It keeps nudging south, and that's the part of the fire that challenges us the most."

The Labrador fire, burning approximately 13 miles northwest of Cave Junction gained 50 acres overnight and is estimated at 2,020 acres, but containment is nonexistent "and it will stay that way for a long time," Ferguson said.

Ferguson said 510 people are working on containing the fire.

"The community of Oak Flat is well protected, and with skillful firefighting we think we can keep it south of the Illinois River. But it's burning into the Kalmiopsis Wilderness, and we won't chase into the Kalmiopsis."

The Big Windy complex, which includes three fires burning in the steep canyon country in the area between Bear Camp Road and the wild section of the Rogue River about 25 miles northwest of Grants Pass, was estimated late Friday at 3,718 acres. The fire has burned to the south edge of the Rogue River, and fire officials are concerned about what might happen if the fire leaps the river.

"At the moment it's burning uphill, which is good," Ferguson said, adding that structure protection for the historic Zane Grey cabin and Black Bar Lodge appear to be solid.

Firefighters — 768 personnel were assigned to the fire as of Friday — are attempting to construct a "big box" around the fire using Bear Camp Road, Peavine Road, the river and some old fire lines and logging roads. Firefighters hope to conduct some "strategic firing," which involves setting small, controlled fires to create a wider fire line.

The problem is that the strategic maneuver will take time, and the weather that helped keep the fires tamped down yesterday — low ceiling, lower temperatures and higher humidity — is changing. The high temperature in Medford Thursday was only 74, but a high of 95 is predicted by Sunday.

If the fire jumps the Rogue and begins burning toward the south end of the Douglas Complex, the Big Windy fire could quickly grow beyond the ability of firefighters to stop it.

"That area is built to burn," Ferguson said. "It's called Big Windy for a reason, and conditions are favorable for fire to cross the river there" in the area of Horseshoe Bend.

"As long as it's burning uphill and away from the river, that's OK," said Ferguson, adding that firefighters expect to see more fire growth today.

"But we can't fight the fires where they are right now. We have to get them where we can fight them."

Mail Tribune features editor David Smigelski can be reached at 541-776-8784 or

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