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Ring of fire

Medford sits in the eye of a hurricane of fires, with more than a dozen out-of-control blazes roaring through nearly 500 square miles of rough terrain in Southern Oregon and Northern California.

The biggest and most difficult wildfire in the state remains the 117,669-acre Chetco Bar fire that threatened Brookings. In addition to major wildfires, there are many dozens of small fires burning in the region, ignited by lightning strikes

The valley is ringed by eight major fires burning over 215 square miles in Southern Oregon and seven more in a 284-square-mile area over the border in California. Many of the individual fires are lumped into complexes containing multiple fires, meaning there are likely hundreds of fires ranging in size from a few acres to many square miles.

"This is a pretty significant fire year," said Jim Whittington, public information officer for the newly formed Joint Incident Command Center in Medford, made up of fire officials from the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service and state agencies.

Fighting on the front lines at the Chetco Bar fire, a crew of 12 from Jackson County fire departments, including Medford Fire-Rescue, helped cut lines and save houses near Brookings for eight days.

"We were up all night every night," said Medford Battalion Chief Rick Rohrbaugh, who slept in the third-base dugout at Brookings High School. "We prepared structures for fire, set up swimming pools, moved wood piles, cleaned gutters and we patrolled the area."

Firefighters from Ashland, Fire District 3 and Fire District 5 were also part of the crew, which manned four brush rigs, a water tender and the battalion chief's vehicle.

"The first night we engaged the fire that was near a house," he said, estimating the structure was about four miles from Brookings.

Local firefighters joined an army of crews battling blazes on many fronts, prompting the creation of the incident command headquarters at the 911 center at the Medford airport.

For the season, fires have engulfed a 500-square-mile area statewide, though many of the fires in the northern and eastern portion of the state were tamped down early in the season. Fire officials estimate the cost so far to battle the blazes at $100 million.

Eight percent of the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest is currently in the burn areas.

The stubborn Chetco Bar fire — the largest in the state — is only 5 percent contained, with crews solidifying lines to protect Brookings.

The most active areas in the Chetco fire include the Emily Creek drainage, the East Fork of the Pistol River and along the eastern flank of the Kalmiopsis Wilderness.

Smoke provided some cooling for the Chetco fire and moderated advancing flames on Monday, but short-duration crown fires raged in some locations. The National Weather Service predicts a slight drop in temperatures and somewhat less smoke during the middle of the week, but highs could soar into the triple digits by the weekend. 

Hampering control efforts are debris and snags remaining from the 2002 Biscuit fire that burned almost 500,000 acres. On Tuesday, fire officials worried winds could push embers up to almost a half-mile on the Chetco fire.

On Monday, the 21,432-acre High Cascades Complex blew up, gobbling up another 2,000 acres after the Blanket Creek fire advanced toward Highway 62 and Broken Lookout fires swept into the Sky Lakes Wilderness near Crater Lake.

The 10,865-acre Miller Complex, burning near Applegate Lake and toward the Oregon Caves, was moving slowly Monday into Tuesday, but some 80 households along the Applegate River received notices to prepare to evacuate. The Burnt Peak fire, one of six in the Miller Complex, was moving slowly to the east.

Efforts to use air support to halt advancing flames has been hampered by heavy smoke on most of the fires in Southern Oregon.

The fires have also repeatedly put the Rogue Valley's air quality into the "unhealthy" category in recent weeks. Cities from Grants Pass to Shady Cove and Ashland registered unhealthy air in a 24-hour period ending at noon Tuesday. By 5 p.m., all but Grants Pass had improved but still remained in the "unhealthy for sensitive groups" category.

Fires have prompted some road closures, including U.S. Highway 97 at the California-Oregon border near Klamath Falls Tuesday afternoon because of a wildfire burning close by. 

Many western states have been battling large wildfires, particularly in the Rockies, which has stretched firefighting resources. The Lodgepole Complex in Montana is the largest fire in the West at 270,723 acres. The Chetco is the third-largest just after Pioneer Burned Area Emergency Response in Idaho at 188,405 acres.

Fire officials expect to see more demands on the 19,000 fire personnel who have been battling blazes across the country since spring.

"There are not a lot of resources left to give," said Shawna Legarza, national director for fire and aviation management for the Forest Service, who was in Medford Tuesday. "We're tapped out."

Legarza said the fire season started a month earlier in Southern Oregon and other regions in the Pacific Northwest.

Even after a wet winter, the region began drying out rapidly by July 4, she said.

Crews have been pouring into Oregon from all over the country, including from Florida and Guam. Firefighters have faced high heat, lots of smoke and dangerous conditions on the ground.

"There has been a great wildland response," she said.

In Oregon and Washington, 3,000 fires have been started this season and most have been extinguished. But 97 large fire complexes are still burning in both states.

A common theme with most of the fires burning in the region is rough terrain with dangerous conditions that have limited firefighters' abilities to get the upper hand.

"Most of those are tough places for firefighters," said Kevin Martin, director of fire, fuels and aviation management for Alaska and the northwest region of the Forest Service, who was also in Medford Tuesday.

Three firefighters assigned to the Miller Complex were injured, one seriously, when their fire engine rolled off the road into an embankment Sunday on Carberry Creek Road.

Martin said 120 National Guard troops are being trained to help battle the Southern Oregon fires and will be deployed this week.

Of the 19,000 fire personnel on fire lines across the country, 9,200 are in the Pacific Northwest, Martin said.

At the Joint Information Center, Whittington said steps are taken to prevent firefighters from unnecessarily finding themselves in harm's way.

"We're extremely careful about the exposure we allow our firefighters to take," Whittington said.

While this has been a difficult fire season, Whittington said 2015 was challenging as well.

"That was just a horrendous fire year," he said.

Driven by high temperatures and drought conditions, numerous fires roared out of control in 2015. In mid-August of that year, 25 fires totaling 822,512 acres were burning uncontrolled in the Pacific Northwest.

— Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or dmann@mailtribune.com. Follow him on www.twitter.com/reporterdm.

Heather Ibsen looks over the current fire conditions in the Southern Oregon region on a map at the Joint Incident Command Center in Medford Tuesday. [Mail Tribune / Andy Atkinson]
Amy Linn, left, and Heather Ibsen monitor fire conditions in Southern Oregon from the Incident Command Center in Medford. [Mail Tribune / Andy Atkinson]