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Onion Mountain fire 'still hot and active'

MERLIN — Wednesday's rain helped dampen the Onion Mountain Fire. But temperatures are due to rise this weekend, and the fire is far from extinguished.

"We've got 4,000 acres of fire out there," Link Smith of the Oregon Department of Forestry told a crowd of about 140 people Thursday night during a fire information meeting at Fleming Middle School near Merlin.

"It's still hot and active," warned Mark Glos, a U.S. Forest Service fire operations manager.

As of Friday morning, Level 1 evacuation advisories for Limpy Creek Road and Riverbanks Road were lifted, but all other evacuation advisories remain the same. Level 1 means be ready to go.

Fire lines now surround the east side of the fire, which is about 20 percent contained. As of Thursday, 13 helicopters and about 800 firefighters were battling the blaze.

On Thursday, skies were mostly clear of smoke in Grants Pass, and temperatures were cooler than earlier in the week. A temperature inversion kept the fire's smoke close to the ground, hampering some fire suppression operations from aircraft, Glos said.

The fire was reported early Saturday on U.S. Forest Service land near Onion Mountain, west of Grants Pass. Winds and heat fueled a rapid spread, although Wednesday's rain and cooler weather helped slow it.

"A big opportunity was handed us with the weather," Smith said. "The weather changed at the perfect time."

Perhaps it was just a coincidence that Phillip Hendrix and his wife did a rain dance out on their deck the day before the raindrops fell. They got a round of applause from the crowd for their efforts.

Their home is in the Pickett Creek area, northeast of the fire. The Onion Mountain Fire is centered in an area about six miles southwest of Robertson Bridge. Residents of about 430 homes in the greater Riverbanks Road area have been advised to be ready to leave, if needed. 

Temperatures are forecast to jump back into the 90s Saturday and Sunday. The National Weather Service forecast winds to shift back from the east Saturday night, so smoke could continue to be an issue in the Grants Pass area.

 The fire probably started late Friday or early Saturday, and was reported at 8:35 a.m. Saturday, the audience was told. A helicopter was on scene in about 20 minutes, and ground crews headed that direction immediately. Extremely dry conditions, coupled with rugged terrain, caused the fire to spread quickly.

 "Any ignition had the opportunity to get large really fast," said Shawn Sheldon, a Forest Service employee and the fire's deputy incident commander.

 Initial firefighting efforts were on the fire's east side, closest to homes about five miles away.

 "We threw everything we had on this side," Sheldon said. "Aviation was a huge help to us. The helicopters helped us out tremendously."

 Fire retardant drops helped save communications equipment and a fire lookout atop Onion Mountain. The fire swept east Saturday and Sunday and then swung north.

 "The fire is swinging on us," Glos said. "It's trying to go north."

 Some firefighters have been directed into canyons, Glos said. "Mine shafts, insects, poison oak," he said. "Why everybody doesn't want to be a firefighter, I don't know."

 Logging roads have been widened, brush is being cleared and chipped, and portable water tanks and miles of fire hose are being brought in. Bulldozers, fire trucks and brush cutters are being used.

 "We have a lot of equipment out there," Glos said.

 He guaranteed nothing, but said, "It is looking pretty darn good."