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Chetco Bar fire's a sleeping giant — for now

"It seems like the fire went to sleep," said Cave Junction resident Heather Newman, as she examined a fire map Sunday night during a community meeting held at Illinois Valley High School. "I just hope this sleeping giant doesn't wake up."

And while fire officials confirmed there's been little growth and no active flame in most of the Chetco Bar fire's eastern side for a few days, they cautioned against complacency.

"Conditions might change as the weather heats up," East Zone Incident Commander Brian Gales said, noting that the 188,284-acre fire — one of the nation's largest — could still cause trouble. "With three to five days of drying, the fire could take some small runs, but I don't think you'll see a wall of fire coming at the fire lines."

The previous week's fire meeting was jammed beyond capacity, with hundreds of concerned — some almost frantic — citizens standing elbow-to-elbow, but this week, after four days of smoke-free air, everyone was able to find a chair.

As hundreds of Illinois Valley residents remain under a Level 1 evacuation notice, the audience wanted clarity about potential evacuations.

Fire Behavior Analyst Dean Warner explained that because of the fire's size and proximity to homes in the East Zone, with only a few roads in and out of the area, the "get ready" notice is a precaution.

Perhaps the most well received news of the evening was when Gales announced: "We're not going to do burnout operations unless we absolutely need to. We'll look at where the fire's at, where it's grown, and respond to what we need to."

Fire officials say that's the strategy for the West Zone toward Brookings, as well.

"Infrared planes are detecting less and less heat in the fire overall," said Public Information Officer Terry Krasko. "We're ready to fire up burnouts to fortify those lines, but we won't if we don't need to. We're reluctant to put more smoke in the sky if we don't have to. It's still a waiting game."

As the fire is only 5 percent contained, he added that crews stationed around the fire's perimeter continue to fortify containment lines.

In the East Zone, the fire mostly smolders in light fuels in areas burned by the 2002 Biscuit fire; but in the West Zone, potential danger to residents is greater because of mature forest fuels capable of more extreme fire behavior.

About 1,530 firefighters remain assigned to the Chetco fire, with 320 of them camped out in the East Zone at Lake Selmac. Gales said that contingent will remain in place until the threat to the Illinois Valley is gone. The crowd erupted in applause when he added that a new weather system might bring a few inches of rain to the region in 10 days' time.

Numerous political questions and comments were also tossed around at the meeting, and officials kept "passing the buck" — handing the microphone to Josephine County Commissioner Lily Morgan.

"That's why they pay me the big bucks," she joked. Then, in a serious vein, said, "This is the first time all of Oregon is on fire at the same time. I believe there will be a lot of looking at policy. People have many opinions on what we should do about it."

She added, "Tourism is the No. 3 industry in Oregon, worth billions of dollars. But not with this smoke."

Brookings residents remain on a Level 1 evacuation notice, and hundreds living in areas to the north and east of Brookings remain on Level 2 evacuation alerts. Level 3 evacuation orders remain in place for areas in both the West and East Zones. Check out the Checto fire evacuation map at http://arcg.is/2vWQN2N.

The Chetco fire Inciweb page provides daily updated information. View pictures and videos on the official Checto Bar fire Facebook page.

— Annette McGee Rasch is a freelance writer living in Cave Junction. Reach her at annettrasch@yahoo.com.

Chetco Bar fire map by Mail Tribune on Scribd

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Josephine County Commissioner Lily Morgan fields questions from the crowd during a Chetco fire meeting Sunday in Cave Junction. [Photo by Annette McGee Rasch]