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Firefighters stamp out burning debris and smoldering embers left by the East Antelope fire

Jerry Hunt spent his Sunday digging for fire in the scorched hills east of Ashland.

In a black-and-white landscape of ash and burned trees, the Myrtle Creek firefighter searched for embers that might rekindle the 1,900-acre East Antelope fire. Walking slowly and carefully across a steep, rocky slope, he noticed a tiny wisp of smoke drifting from a charred root hole beside an old stump.

Hacking at the root, he dragged out rotten wood and soil for several minutes until he uncovered a few glowing embers. Placing the coals on a bed of dry soil, he churned them into the dirt with his adze hoe, dust and ashes swirling around him with every stroke.

When the embers stopped smoking, he felt the dirt with a bare hand, searching for any heat that might indicate a live spark. Then he probed the root hole, trusting his fingers to find heat where he could not see. Feeling no heat, he scanned the hill until he eyed another smoldering stump.

We've got to take the burning debris away so the fire can't start anymore, he said, walking slowly across the rocky hillside to the next buried embers, where he started digging with the slow, methodical pace of someone who's spent long days mopping up.

Fire bosses declared the fire contained at day's end, after hundreds of firefighters extinguished thousands of tiny hot spots. Like Hunt, many worked without water, dry mopping embers with dirt. Some crews, working closer to roads, wet mopped, drowning hot spots with water trucked to portable tanks and distributed with pumps and hoses.

Killing the dying embers of a wildfire has none of the drama of initial attack. the time mop-up starts, most of the containment lines have been built and they're holding. The flames have died, and the big water-dropping helicopters have moved on to other fires. There's still plenty of heat in the fire, but most of it is buried in root holes and stumps, where fire can creep for days ' or weeks.

Firefighters know from experience that they have to extinguish those embers to prevent a fire from coming back to life. Gusty winds can fan tiny sparks to flame and blow glowing embers across containment lines, kindling a new fire and forcing firefighters to come back and start all over again at square one.

You have to get to the heat sources and let them cool off, said Steve Hayter, one of Hunt's crewmates, as he excavated a burning stump with his partner, Billy Joe Coppock. The two Myrtle Creek men looked more like coal miners than firefighters, their faces blackened by dust, dirt and ash.

It's pretty nasty work, Hayter said. I'm just glad there's showers back at camp when we get back there.

It's also dangerous, said Aaron Raines of Fossil, a supervisor overseeing part of the mop-up. Trees fall down. You can step into a burned-out root hole. It's steep country. There are rolling rocks and debris.

A lot of times the most dangerous part of the fire can be the mop-up, Raines said, because firefighters may not pay as much attention to safety as they do during their initial attack, when the fire is burning hot and fast.

Seasoned crews know how to conserve their energy and work safely for 12- to 14-hours per shift, Raines said. Basically it's just like running a marathon. You've got to pace yourself through the whole day.

Fire damage prompts BLM to close Grizzly Peak trail

The East Antelope fire's run across Grizzly Peak has prompted the Bureau of Land Management to close the popular hiking trail to the summit of the 5,192-foot mountain.

There are concerns that the fire has weakened trees in the area, said Doug Decker, an information officer at the fire camp at TouVelle State Park.

Tops of trees, large branches or whole trees could fall without warning, Decker said. We know it's a very popular, well-used trail, and that increases the odds that somebody might get hurt.

Rich Drehobl, field manager for BLM's Ashland Resource Area, closed the trail by emergency order during the weekend. Drehobl said it is too early to tell how long the trail will be closed, but he said it might remain closed into next year.

Jerry Hunt of Myrtle Creek digs out a smoldering tree root during the mop-up of the East Antelope fire. Mail Tribune / Andrew Mariman - Mail Tribune Andrew Mariman