As veteran firefighter Dave Bauman walked along the edge of Bear Camp Road, he nodded approvingly at the rising tendrils of smoke and thick ashes on the forest floor just off the pavement.
"This puts the black right on the edge of your fire line," explained Bauman, 51, of the Olympic National Forest. "It helps increase control, makes it safer, more secure. It's a lot safer here now than it was with the green that is more susceptible to burning.
"The fine fuels on the floor of this stand are gone," he concluded. "There is nothing left to carry the fire forward. The small fuels that ignite more easily are gone."
A firefighter for more than two decades, Bauman was providing boots-on-the-ground experience Friday afternoon during a media tour of the Big Windy Complex fire centered some eight miles north of Galice. The 14,364-acre fire burning south of the Rogue River is 10 percent contained. Bauman is one of more than 1,200 firefighters deployed to the fire.
But the blaze, one of five large fires sparked by a July 26 lightning storm in southwestern Oregon, is expected to mushroom to nearly 50,000 acres because firefighters are taking an indirect approach to stop the blaze.
They are using Bear Camp Road on the south and the Rogue River on the north as fire lines to try to stop the blaze because it is simply too dangerous to attack it head on, officials said.
On the map, the Big Windy Complex fire looks a bit like a baby dragon about to roar.
It is burning on the U.S. Bureau of Land Management's Medford District.
As an illustration of the rugged terrain, the ridge where the fire line is being built on the eastern flank near Peavine Road is too steep for the firefighters to climb back up the mountainside, said district spokesman Jim Whittington.
"When we send people down there off the Peavine Road, we don't have them climb back up," Whittington said. "We raft them down to the Rogue River Ranch and drive them back up."
Earlier this week, a firefighter on an elite hotshot crew slipped and tumbled about 150 feet, breaking his wrist and suffering multiple cuts and bruises, Whittington said.
"There is some stuff in here where you literally slide down on your heinie," he said. "There are knife ridges in some places here."
The indirect strategy was necessary because of firefighter safety, he stressed.
"The terrain here is ridiculously steep," he said. "We have very few escape routes and safety zones in this country."
Burning out ahead of the main fire will reduce its momentum, he said.
"The idea is to stop it from developing a lot of energy and hit our lines hard," he said.
That steepness can make safety on the fire line difficult to come by, Bauman interjected.
"Any operation you do on a slope like this, you have a possibility of burning material coming downhill at you," he said. "The log itself can be a hazard if it is big. But it is getting the fire below you that we have to constantly look out for. That is a very hazardous situation."
Because of that, lookouts are posted to watch for a fire racing up from below, said the former hotshot crew member.
Those planning the strategy against the fire know the smoke is a concern to local residents throughout the region, Whittington said.
"The smoke issue is tough for everybody," he said. "It's an issue for firefighters, for the community, the elderly — everyone. We are very aware of what a lot of smoke means to everybody. Nobody likes it."
The result of burning out ahead of the fire lines to take fuel away from the advancing fire will increase smoke in the short-term, he said.
"However, if we didn't do that, the fire would continue to burn and produce smoke, burning much longer if we didn't execute the strategy we have," he said.
The target result of the strategy is to shorten the natural life of the fire, although there may be a few more intense days, he said.
"So, instead of it burning the rest of the season, it will put up smoke for a couple of more weeks, then we are done with it," he said.
For the firefighters, the big trade-off with the smoke is that it tends to keep a lid on the fire, he said.
"On the other hand, the aircraft we have assigned to this have not flown very much at all because of the smoke," he said.
At one point along Bear Camp, which is closed to the public because of the fire, Roseburg resident Don Scriven, 36, of First Strike Environmental, was taking a weather reading. The contract firefighter reported 70 degrees with 5 percent humidity, information which he sends back to the fire command center in Merlin.
"We do that every hour on the hour," said the firefighter who has been fighting fires for a dozen years.
When he isn't taking a weather reading, he and his two-man crew patrol the road, looking for fires that may have hopped the road. They have put out several spot fires thus far.
"This kind of compares to the Biscuit fire back in 2002," he said. "We have fires all around us like we did then. And the terrain is so steep and difficult we are having to go at it indirectly. But we're going to get this one."
To the west, a portion of the Big Windy Complex is overlapping the area burned by the Biscuit fire, which grew to some half million acres before it was snuffed out, largely by Mother Nature.
Both Whittington and Bauman are optimistic the firefighters will be able to stop the Big Windy Complex within the planned fire lines.
"When we first started, there was very high probability the fire would be on both sides of the river," Whittington said. "The fire burning along the river has cooled down a little bit.
"But we are going to watch and see what happens when things dry out and things pick up a little bit," he said.
A fire under an inversion layer can erupt when the lid is lifted, he warned.
"We are going to see some columns from this fire," he predicted. "We hope that is on the interior, not on our lines."
Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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