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MailTribune.com
  • Lengthy fire fight expected

    'We're going to live with these fires until October 15th or later'
  • When Dan Thorpe and Kevin Donham pore over a map of the Big Windy complex fire, they know the outline of the more than 9,200-acre fire is only temporary.
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    • Predicted weather could help, hurt efforts
      An approaching storm could help firefighters suppress the fires burning in southwest Oregon. Or it could make things worse.
      With thunderstorms expected through Friday, the front could deliver ra...
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      Predicted weather could help, hurt efforts
      An approaching storm could help firefighters suppress the fires burning in southwest Oregon. Or it could make things worse.

      With thunderstorms expected through Friday, the front could deliver rain to help douse, or at least dampen, the existing wildfires. Or it may pepper the local forests with dry lightning, sparking more fires.

      "There is a veiled promise of some rain with those storms," said Brian Ballou, an ODF spokesman.

      "But we will have to wait and see," he added. "The most I've seen is a 30 percent chance of rain."
  • When Dan Thorpe and Kevin Donham pore over a map of the Big Windy complex fire, they know the outline of the more than 9,200-acre fire is only temporary.
    Under their best-guess scenario, the fire centered some 25 miles northwest of Grants Pass will expand five-fold to nearly 50,000 acres by this fall.
    And that's if it doesn't jump the planned fire lines.
    "We are working on 48,000 acres," said Thorpe, forester in charge of the Oregon Department of Forestry's Southwest Oregon District. "That's our first best option. And I don't know what our chances are at keeping it at that."
    Because of the incredibly steep and rugged terrain, coupled with the heavy forest fuel, firefighting strategists plan to use the Rogue River to the north and the Bear Camp Road to the south to stop the hungry fire. Flanking fire lines will be built to the east and west.
    The indirect fire lines are the only way to stop it, they say, adding the fire can be expected to burn well into autumn unless Mother Nature intervenes with rain.
    "I think we can hold Bear Camp," said Donham, fire staff officer for the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest.
    "The flanks make me nervous, though," he added. "But we have the best minds in the world noodling this stuff."
    He stopped talking to further study the map spread before them.
    "There are a lot of long days ahead of us," he predicted. "When you have some 40,000 acres in that fuel model in that terrain, it is a challenge."
    But both veteran firefighters — Thorpe with 41 seasons, Donham with 32 seasons — say there is no other viable option to stop the fire.
    "They picked the best place to go," Donham concluded of the planned fire lines.
    There are now roughly 5,000 firefighters deployed to the five fires sparked by a July 26 dry lightning storm that have burned some 55,000 acres in the region.
    "But the Windy Complex is the fire that is going to get big, the one we are going to own for a long time," Thorpe predicted.
    Overnight, crews were burning out from the Bear Camp Road, widening the fire line, said Jim Whittington, spokesman for fire center keeping tabs on the fire.
    "We're burning out at night for the most part," he explained. "We don't want to get any spot fires on the back side. During the day there is a greater chance for that to happen."
    Spot fires are ignited by embers blowing ahead of the main fire.
    The goal is to "walk" the fires down the slope, creating a prescribed burn effect, Whittington said.
    But he noted that even after fire fighters burn out ahead of the fire, a large expanse of forestland will remain between the main fire and the fire lines.
    "We will still leave huge amounts of unburned territory," he said.
    All the land in the immediate area is on the U.S. Bureau of Land Management's Medford District, land protected by ODF firefighters and a small group of BLM firefighters.
    But the fire is also approaching portions of the Rogue River-Siskiyou forest.
    "Our big challenge is Horse Shoe Bend," Thorpe said of a well-known bend in the river. "The wind and the river are aligned for the fire to spot across there."
    But firefighters will be positioned to catch the fire should it jump the river, he said, noting firefighters are currently hunting for spot fires that may have started across the river.
    "We are going to throw heaven and earth on it," Thorpe said.
    No matter what happens, they don't expect the fire to be dead out anytime soon.
    "This season is setting up, potentially, to be more of a strain on us than either 1987 or 2002," Donham said, referring to two fire seasons which burned long and hard in the region. "The conditions are a lot drier. This is going to be the new point of reference. The new '87, the new '02."
    "We're going to live with these fires until October 15th or later," Thorpe said.
    He said the 2002 Biscuit fire, which burned half a million acres in a mosaic pattern, has affected the 2,020-acre Labrador fire in the Illinois River drainage west of Selma.
    The Labrador fire burning into the Kalmiopsis Wilderness is slowing in the area blackened by the Biscuit fire, Donham said.
    "What we are finding out is the old Biscuit burn is not responding like it did in 2002," he said. "The fuel profile has changed.
    "But the Biscuit is nasty from a snag standpoint and getting firefighters in and out of there," he added. "It's not a good place to put firefighters."
    He noted that one firefighter was killed last week in a wilderness area on the Deschutes National Forest by a snag.
    Firefighters are being deployed to fight the fire in the Kalmiopsis, he said, although noting firefighting tactics are generally different in a wilderness where an effort is made to leave as little imprint as possible.
    As of Monday evening, the largest fire of the five remains the 35,633-acre Douglas complex north of Glendale. It was 16 percent contained, according to fire center spokeswoman Emily Veale.
    The Whiskey complex, six miles east of Tiller, has grown to 6,245 acres and is 25 percent contained while the 2,372-acre Brimstone fire northwest of Merlin is 80 percent contained, she added.
    No homes have been burned by the fires. A firefighter suffered a broken wrist over the weekend from a fall but no other injuries have been reported.
    An approaching storm could help firefighters suppress the fires burning in southwest Oregon. Or it could make things worse.
    With thunderstorms expected through Friday, the front could deliver rain to help douse, or at least dampen, the existing wildfires. Or it may pepper the local forests with dry lightning, sparking more fires.
    "There is a veiled promise of some rain with those storms," said Brian Ballou, an ODF spokesman.
    "But we will have to wait and see," he added. "The most I've seen is a 30 percent chance of rain."
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