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Arson suspected in Oregon Caves-area fires

By Jeff Duewel

Grants Pass Daily Courier

CAVE JUNCTION — A series of five suspicious fires sparked along Caves Highway at about 2:45 p.m. Wednesday afternoon scared nearby residents enough to grab water hoses and drew at least a dozen fire engines before being snuffed.

Josephine County Sheriff Gil Gilbertson investigated a fire that broke out 20 minutes earlier a few miles away on South Kerby Avenue in Cave Junction, where witnesses reported seeing at least three people leave the scene before the flames flared. That fire also was quickly put out.

"We think one person did it all," Gilbertson said.

Gilbertson stopped a vehicle that matched the description of a blue 1980s Buick sedan seen in the area, but it was not the perpetrators, he said. Arson investigators have been called in.

Illinois Valley Fire District Chief Harry Rich said a witness saw at least one person outside the Buick, and heard someone yell "get in the car," before the fire broke out.

Meanwhile, about four miles to the east, flames rose at least 10 feet high in places as the Caves Highway fires whipped through blackberries and small bushes and scorched power poles.

"We have the area of origin across the street from 3170 (Caves Highway)," Rich said. "It was either four or five sets, or four or five spot fires." Spot fires are caused when embers or sparks from a fire blow ahead of the original fire.

Rich said the blue Buick has been seen around town before and "it's a matter of time" until someone is caught.

One fire got within 200 feet of Lloyd Hipp's house at 3390 Caves Highway and burned a small corner of his property, including some trees.

"I went outside and saw the fire, and had my wife call 9-1-1," Hipp said. "I went outside again and the flames were way up high."

Hipp's son-in-law and nephews went out with garden hoses before firefighters quickly showed up, he said.

Residents of a couple of nearby homes were encouraged to evacuate as the fire hopped the road twice, Rich said. Traffic was closed for about an hour, but drivers were able to detour around the blockage, using Holland Loop and other roads.

Four engines and a bulldozer from the Oregon Department of Forestry's Grants Pass Unit responded, along with engines from the U.S. Forest Service, Illinois Valley Fire District, Rural/Metro Fire Department and Grants Pass Department of Public Safety.

A structural protection task force was put on alert, but was not mobilized.

Illinois Valley firefighter Bob Clark was taken by ambulance to Three Rivers Community Hospital in Grants Pass, after a fire hose blew apart and hit him in the head. He was treated and released, Rich said.

"He got his bell rung," Rich said.

Jeff Duewel is a reporter for the Grants Pass Daily Courier. Reach him at 474-3720 or jduewel@thedailycourier.com