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Cool trend stalls Selma-area fires

The Associated Press

CAVE JUNCTION ' A feeling of security began to return to the Illinois Valley on Monday as firefighters struggled against cool and humid weather to finish burning out a 40-mile defense line against the Sour Biscuit and Florence fires.

Calm winds, cool temperatures and high humidity kept in check the fires that have burned a combined 275,000 acres on the Siskiyou National Forest in southwestern Oregon, but made it tough to light fires to consume trees and brush along the containment line protecting the valley.

I can't say it's not a little scary, especially as I look out the kitchen window and see an awful lot of smoke swirling around, said Susie Wood from her home in O'Brien, where backburning operations went on within 200 yards of her home.

But I've felt confident enough to finally slow down for the day and take a rest, she added. We've been working five days clearing brush around the house to make it safe.

At the Illinois Valley Golf Course, smoke hugging the ground forced pro shop manager Bob Paul to quit his round on the back nine, but did not deter Kenny Lewis.

We're going to go out and see if we can find the ball in this smoke, he said.

Sheriff's deputies checking on the homes of about 1,200 people who evacuated the area over the past week have found that about three-quarters of them have returned, said Josephine County sheriff's Lt. Lee Harman.

The evacuation notice for the valley's 17,000 residents was downgraded from two hours to four, meaning residents should be ready to leave within four hours of being warned.

Illinois Valley Fire Chief Kyle Kirchner said he was not ready to lift the evacuation warning yet, because weather forecasts are calling for a warming trend beginning in the middle of the week that will make the fire more volatile.

Cave Junction Mayor Ed Faircloth said the threat was real enough to cancel this weekend's Blackberry Festival, which normally draws about 5,000 visitors to the valley.

We're still so much in doubt where the fire will go, he said.

Mike Lohrey, incident commander on the east side of the Florence fire, said he was cautiously optimistic the 2,200 firefighters could keep the flames at bay, though the cool and humid weather was making it difficult to finish burning off the last 25 percent of the 40-mile containment line standing against the fire.

The fire still has the potential, given the right weather conditions, to run down the Chetco River to the coast or jump over Chrome Ridge and descend on the Rogue River near the whitewater rafting center of Galice, Lohrey said.

There's still a lot of fire out there, Lohrey said. Until we can make that area black and the area is contained, the threat is real.

Reflecting the changing focus, fire commanders stopped the every-other-night community meetings at Illinois Valley High School, but planned to hold their first one in Galice on the Rogue River about 15 miles northeast of the fire perimeter.

Seven major fires continued burning across nearly 500,000 acres in Oregon, but the Florence and Sour Biscuit fires were still to be the top priority in the nation, giving them first crack at fire crews, helicopters and other resources release from other fires.

The Florence Fire was 10 percent contained, and the Sour Biscuit Fire 15 percent contained.

Prevailing winds kept the northern flank of the fire from advancing on the rural communities of Agness and Oak Flat, located at the confluence of the Illinois and Rogue rivers, where firefighters cleared brush around homes and bulldozers dug containment lines in preparation for burning them off, said spokeswoman Susan Mathison.

The fire was three miles from Oak Flat and six from Agness, but there was no evacuation notice in force, Mathison said. However, fire commanders marked their maps with 72-hour and 48-hour trigger points which, if the fire reaches them, will prompt deputies to go door-to-door warning residents to be ready to leave within 72 hours and 48 hours.

Meanwhile, deputies arrested a Grants Pass man on charges of impersonating a firefighter and stealing some turkeys and chickens from a home where he advised residents to flee, said Harman.

Wearing a yellow Nomex fire shirt with homemade patches identifying him as a firefighter, Kenton Bowden was knocked on doors in the Selma area Sunday night telling people to flee, and tried to get into fire camp, Harman said. He was arrested Monday morning after going to the sheriff's office to ask why he had heard his name on his police scanner.