Fast-growing fire has now grown to 29,000 acres

When Nancy and Victor Rineman looked up from their Phoenix home Thursday evening and saw a massive column of smoke expanding across the southeastern horizon, their stomachs churned.

"We knew it was our place," Nancy said, standing beside Copco Road on Saturday at the entrance to their blackened 20 acres where five cabins once stood.

The Oregon Gulch fire devoured the Rineman's property, along with its buildings, during an opening day 5,300-acre wind-driven march through federal Bureau of Land Management property and private timberland.

A conservative estimate from fire officials before an overnight infrared flight survey put Saturday's fire growth at about 8,000 acres, which would expand its total size to 29,000 acres.

"We haven't been in there, but we heard they were all lost," Victor said. "It looks like it burned pretty intensely."

A handful of outbuildings, a fifth-wheel camper, an ATV, a motorcycle, a couple of old trucks and other vehicles also were destroyed, he said.

The Rinemans lived on their property for about 10 years after purchasing it in 1974. Victor built the cabins, and the couple married there in 1980, Nancy said.

"We loved this place, and it was beautiful; and now it's really sad," she said.

After moving to Phoenix, the family continued to use the property as a summertime retreat and rented out the cabins to weekend occupants.

"It's a place we were going to retire to, but I don't think we will retire here now," Nancy said.

Surveying the moonscaped forest one last time before getting in his car and continuing down the road, Victor squinted his eyes looking into the afternoon's increasing westerly wind.

"With this wind, just like it's blowing right now. ... It's one of those things we always knew could happen, that's for sure," he said.

He said the family may try to salvage some of the standing trees for firewood, but doesn't think there was much merchantable timber left before the fire.

Along Copco Road, a few miles back toward Highway 66, a 20-person hand crew for JC Orozco Reforestation of Sheridan was conducting a burnout operation along a still-green island among the black.

It was the crew's first day on the fire, Crew Boss José C. Orozco said. The crew's luggage, packed for a two-week stint, was piled on nearby pickups.

Orozco's crew is one of 22 similarly sized hand crews working on the Oregon Gulch Fire.

In addition to the Rinemans' losses, three homes had been destroyed by the fire as of Saturday, according to the Oregon State Fire Marshal, and 270 structures are threatened in Oregon and California.

Klamath County is considering a Level 3 — "get out immediately" — evacuation notice for rural residences along Topsy Grade Road south of John C. Boyle Reservoir, said Don Hickman, Oregon Department of Forestry public information officer for the Beaver Complex.

Meanwhile, a Level 1 evacuation order went into effect Saturday for residences along the stretch of Highway 66 and between its intersection with Hyatt Lake Road and its 22000 block to the east. The Jackson County Sheriff's Office will be administering the evacuation alert.

Level 1 is an awareness level, alerting residents to be prepared in the event an evacuation is necessary.

Due to the complexity of the Oregon Gulch fire, a unified command structure with Oregon Department of Forestry, the Oregon State Fire Marshal's Office and CAL FIRE has been established.

To date, ODF has racked up about $1.2 in suppression costs managing the Beaver Complex, while CALFIRE has tallied about $850,000 battling the Oregon Gulch fire.

By Monday night, fire officials expect there could be a total of 12,000 acres burned in California by the Oregon Gulch fire.

The Jackson County Sheriff's Office is maintaining a Level 3 evacuation order for homes in close proximity to the Oregon Gulch fire, which is about 15 miles east of Ashland. The affected area is Copco Road, from the 6000 block to the California-Oregon border.

Fighting the blaze are an estimated 788 firefighters — including 440 hand crew members and six camp crews — 50 engines, 17 dozers, nine water tenders, and overhead personnel are fighting the blaze. Air resources included 14 helicopters and multiple air tankers.

"We have just bone-dry conditions up here and we're getting some afternoon winds that are pretty erratic so they're pushing the fire in multiple directions," Hickman said. "It's going to grown with the winds and the dry conditions."

The Oregon Gulch fire is part of what has been named the Beaver Complex, which also includes the Salt Creek fire burning 20 miles northwest of Medford. That fire was reported at 146 acres early Saturday, and fire personnel were able to complete line construction around the perimeter. It was considered 30 percent contained. Both fires were started by lightning on July 30.

Reach reporter Sam Wheeler at 541-776-4471 or Follow him at