Lightning-sparked Oregon Gulch fire grew quickly Thursday afternoon, burning structures 25 miles southeast of Ashland
Southwest Oregon's largest wildfire of the year torched about 5,300 acres and an unknown number of structures by nightfall Thursday with little sign of slowing down.
First reported Thursday morning as a blaze covering about 10 acres, the Oregon Gulch Fire roared out of the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument about 25 miles southeast of Ashland and forced the evacuation of several rural homes in the area of Copco Road and Jenny Creek south of Pinehurst.
"We did get a report from the aircraft that some structures were burned, but we don't know what they were yet," said Brian Ballou, fire prevention specialist with the Oregon Department of Forestry. "It has really burned a large chunk of property out there ... we're primarily fighting the fire from the air with helicopters and retardant planes."
Ballou said wildland engine crews assisted with structure protection at one ranch in the area that the fired burned over and were able to keep the buildings there from going up in flames. He did not know the name of the ranch.
Moving to the northeast, the fire had grown to about 500 acres by 4 p.m. — jumping the Copco Road and Jenny Creek — and by 6 p.m. about 1,700 acres had been consumed, Ballou said.
The wind then switched and began pushing flames to the southeast, he said. About 200 acres burned in California immediately north of Copco Lake and several hundred acres burned in Klamath County as the fire spread over Grizzly Mountain. he said.
Stormy winds and dry, ample amounts of fuel led to the fire's rapid growth, he said.
Fleeing residents were initially directed to take shelter at the Fall Creek Ranch on Copco Road about a mile from the California-Oregon border, but as the fire started to spread south, occupants there were told to head into California.
Minutes before the property was abandoned, Tracie Gibson, a resident at Fall Creek Ranch, said "They're asking everybody to leave at this point. They're trying to save lives more than anything right now. They're dumping water, trying to save what they can, but it's moving pretty fast."
In addition to multiple helicopters and airplanes, 12 bulldozers, eight engines, three 20-person hand crews and a pair of water tenders worked to extinguish the fire Thursday, Ballou said.
Ground crews continued working the fire into the night and more resources will be ordered today, he said.
Thunderclouds shot out between 2,000 and 2,500 lightning strikes across Southern Oregon in the afternoon and into the evening Wednesday, with about 850 touching down in Jackson County. That resulted in numerous fires, smoke tufts peeking up over the treelines and hills on Thursday. The week's third consecutive red flag warning was also in effect, due to abundant dry fuels and another round of incoming thunderstorms.
The lightning kickstarted 15 new fires around Jackson and Josephine counties on land protected by the Oregon Department of Forestry.
The area's second large fire, reported 15 miles north of Gold Hill near Salt Creek, has burned an estimated 80 and 100 acres. Ballou said fire crews had difficulty accessing that blaze, needing to re-open old, overgrown logging roads with bulldozers. That fire, plus two additional 10-acre blazes, reported nearby at Round Top Butte, are being managed as the Beaver Creek Complex.
Ballou said the Salt Creek fire is about 50 percent lined.
U.S. National Guard helicopter crews are assisting on that complex, which was eventually taken over by an incident management team. Firefighters working those fires are camping at Touvelle State Park.
"They've still got a lot of work to be done," Ballou said.
Another fire near Beaver Creek grew to five acres, and blazes near Buck Rock and Willie Rock shot to four. The additional fires had not exceeded half an acre in size. Those fires were reported at Kenyon Ridge, Slick Rock Cabin, Point Mountain, Flat Creek, East Evans Creek, Horn Gulch and Hells Peak.
Firefighters continue to perform mop-up work at the Reeves Creek Fire southwest of Grants Pass. The fire was at 75 percent containment Thursday. Its size has been scaled back from 232 acres to 204. Crews have been able to move 300 feet into the interior during mop-up work, Ballou said.
"The fire looks like it's very stable," he said.
There were 30 reported fires in the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest's Siskiyou Mountains Ranger District on Thursday, with multiple starts in the Wagner Butte area and the Ashland Watershed. The U.S. Forest Service reported the largest of that crop had grown to eight acres in the Wagner Butte area.
"There are multiple fires in that area on multiple jurisdictions," spokesman Paul Galloway said.
An additional 42 fires started in the forest's High Cascade Ranger District, with a majority estimated to be less than a quater-acre in size. The Camp Creek Complex, made up of 27 of those fires near Rustler Peak, which is east of Lost Creek Lake, had one fire that had grown to seven acres with no containment.
The 16 new lightning-sparked fires reported at Crater Lake are spread across a 35-mile area, some in remote areas with no road access.
"They are small," said public information officer Lucinda Nolan. "We're hoping to get to them fast so they don't spread."
More than 120 wildland firefighters, including rappelling crews, are battling 12 of the blazes with the help of bucket drops from helicopters. Several of the fires can be seen from park roads.
"We would like to caution the public not to stop on the roadways when they are traveling through the park," a Facebook post from the park reads. "If they want to take photos, please use pullouts."
The 25-acre Pumice Flat fire, located at the park's southern boundary, is 75 percent contained. Spot fires continue to pop up on the fire's north end.
The 100-acre Launch Fire, burning at Four Mile Lake, also has a full containment line around the fire. The blaze, where Phoenix firefighter Matthew David Goodnature, 21, died in an accidental fall Tuesday, has been determined to be human-caused, according to the Incident Information System website.
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