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Fire fight treads water

Commercial rafting on affected Rogue River set to resume as crews start to corral Blossom blaze

Firefighters strengthened containment lines around the Blossom fire Tuesday while they waited for a surge of cooler weather that could help them stop the stubborn fire that has burned near the Rogue River west of Grants Pass for nearly a month.

Limited commercial rafting will be allowed to resume today on the first nine miles of the river's 33-mile Wild and Scenic corridor. The river remains closed to private rafting parties while firefighters try to douse flames that were kindled by a July 21 lightning storm.

River managers said private parties that lost their chance to float the Rogue because of the fire closure will receive permits for the 2006 rafting season without having to compete in the annual permit lottery.

Commercial rafting guides will be allowed to take their guests to Black Bar Lodge, nine miles downriver from Grave Creek.

Owners of the lodge offered their private road and river access to commercial rafting companies that have been barred from the Rogue since the fire blew up last week and turned toward the water's edge.

— It's the old 'make-lemonade-out-of-lemons' thing, said John James, whose family has owned Black Bar Lodge since 1960. We're trying to salvage something.

The closure has hit rafting companies particularly hard. Many have been forced to give back money to clients who had paid for three- to five-day river trips at prices of &

36;600 to &

36;700 per person.

We've sent out about &

36;10,000 in cancellation refunds, said Myrna Rafalovich of Rogue Wilderness.

James said liability concerns prevented him from opening his steep, four-wheel-drive road and river access to private boaters. He noted that commercial outfitters carry at least &

36;1 million in insurance as a condition for obtaining their permit.

The fire settled down Tuesday and burned mostly ground-level vegetation as it crept downhill toward the river in the stretch between Blossom Bar and Mule Creek Canyon.

It's been very sedate and mannerly. It hasn't grown dramatically, said Barbara Lee, a fire information officer for the Oregon Department of Forestry.

Firefighters took advantage of the fire's slow day to improve containment lines that have been built some distance from the actual fire. Lee said they plan to deliberately set fire to the area between their lines and the burned area as wind and weather permit.

This strategy, known as burning out, stops the fire by depriving it of fuel rather than actually extinguishing the flames, Lee said.

Forecasters were expecting moist air and perhaps even some clouds over the burn area today with temperatures in the 80s, although 90-degree-plus days were expected to return by later in the week.

Lee said firefighters' work has been made more difficult by steep terrain, poison oak and angry yellow jackets, but only one firefighter has been injured.

She noted that the newest infrared maps of the area indicated the fire has burned across about 8,400 acres, or about 13 square miles. Some areas burned hot enough to torch whole stands of trees, but in other places the flames mostly hugged the ground, consuming heavy brush.

Some of the hottest burning has been at lower elevations, where the flames have consumed hardwood trees such as chinquapin and myrtle, said Mike Heilman, a fire information officer for the U.S. Forest Service.

More than 1,800 firefighters have been deployed to rein in the flames, along with 10 helicopters, 44 fire engines and 39 water tankers. Several crews have been stationed at Marial to protect the historic buildings just upstream from Mule Creek Canyon.

It looks real good (for structure protection) up there, Heilman said. They have plenty of water, and it's pretty green up there.

The fire is about 20 percent contained. Fire-team managers can't say when they will finish the job.

Fire fight treads water"bkettler@mailtribune.com.

The Blossom fire creeps toward the banks of the Rogue River near Blossom Bar, one of the best-known features in the river?s 33-mile Wild and Scenic section. Mail Tribune / Roy Musitelli - Mail Tribune Roy Musitelli