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Rain halts Chetco's march

As the week began in Cave Junction with a 30 degree temperature shift from last week, conversation at the River Valley Restaurant turned from fire evacuation notices to winter firewood — and stress levels in the diner were discernibly lower.

"Man, this place is like fire and ice. I went from sweating bullets to wearing a wool sweater," said Illinois Valley resident Lester Hoyle. "But I'm not complaining. I can breathe again."

All evacuation notices in Curry County associated with the 189,787 acre Chetco Bar fire have been lifted. In Josephine County, the Level 1 evacuation alert affecting hundreds of Illinois Valley residents also has been lifted; and the Level 3 notice for people living along Illinois River Road have been dialed back to a Level 2 advisory and is expected to be further downgraded to Level 1 on Tuesday evening. All national forest closures remain in effect, however.

The Checto Bar fire is now 53 percent contained and while efforts to increase that number continue — 1,330 firefighters are still assigned to the West Zone and 280 are camped out in the East Zone — operations have shifted toward rehabilitating areas impacted by both the fire and firefighting efforts.

"With these current rainy conditions, we start to look at mop-up procedures," said East Zone Public Information Officer Blaine Eckberg. "We still have people constructing fire line and we'll continue to identify and put out smokes or any stumps on fire to prevent the fire's spread, but at this point we expect very little movement on the fire itself. "

While the Chetco fire's potential for flaring up has declined substantially, firefighters caution that vigilance remains key, as temperatures are predicted to head back into the 90s next week and conditions will dry out again. So firefighters will keep swinging their Pulaski tools to widen fire lines, and as weather permits, Eckberg says, aircraft will fly to drop water on any hot spots.

Eckberg said resource advisers concerned over the natural integrity of the area continue to work with and advise firefighters, and that more resources likely will shift toward measures to prevent erosion and landslides once the rains really get going.

"We urge any post-fire efforts to preserve the natural processes and protect the renowned conservation values of the Kalmiopsis and its rivers," said Friends of the Kalmiopsis coordinator Barbara Ullian. "The Wild and Scenic Chetco, Illinois and North Fork Smith are world-class native salmon and steelhead streams."

Ullian said that while significant portions of these watersheds burned in the 2002 Biscuit fire, they remain viable wildlife habitat. The Chetco River, for example, continues to produce 50- to 60-pound salmon, she said.

As citizens statewide react to this year's smoke and fires, Ullian wants to remind lawmakers that these pristine waters also supply some of the cleanest drinking water in the nation to local communities, and she hopes that "any future post-fire legislation reflects the Oregon congressional delegations' intent to protect these values."

"Seventy-five percent of the North Fork Smith’s watershed burned in 2002, yet it was just designated the state of Oregon’s first Outstanding Resource Waters recognizing its exceptional water quality and pristine fish habitat," she said. "Rough and Ready Creek has the highest concentration of rare plants in Oregon and water so clear it's the stuff of dreams."

Reach Cave Junction freelance writer Annette McGee Rasch at annetterasch@yahoo.com.

Fire crews brush a fireline along Chrome Ridge east of Chetco Bar fire in this photo posted Sunday. [InciWeb photo]