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Fires close Sky Lakes Wilderness

The Sky Lakes Wilderness Area, including the Pacific Crest Trail and Mount McLoughlin, has been closed to public access because of ongoing fires in and surrounding the wilderness.

Heather Berg, district ranger for the Fremont-Winema National Forest's Klamath Ranger District, said the official closure is pending procedures that were expected to be completed Thursday evening. Signs notifying hikers of the closure have been posted at trailheads.

The 116,300-acre Sky Lakes Wilderness extends along the Cascade Range from Highway 140 near Lake of the Woods 27 miles north to its boundary with Crater Lake National Park. The Fremont-Winema manages land on the east side of the Cascades while the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest has responsibility west of the Cascades.

"We take this closure very seriously," Berg said Thursday afternoon. "The amount of fire we have on the landscape is unprecedented and the closure of the wilderness area is unprecedented."

Two wildfires within the wilderness and on neighboring lands — the North Pelican and Blanket Creek fires — remain active and only partially controlled. Berg said short-term weather forecasts also call for thunderstorms and significant lightning, which could cause more fires.

"All of those things combined shout, 'Look out!' " she said. "We're very concerned for public safety."

Although most PCT through hikers should have passed through Sky Lakes, Berg said PCT section hikers and locals from both the Klamath Basin and Rogue Valley routinely go into various lake basins and climb McLoughlin during the late summer and early fall.

Several wilderness trailheads have been closed, including Cold Springs at Sky Lakes' south end, Cherry Creek and, at the north, Sevenmile. Berg said some hikers have been ignoring the closures and have been seen passing through active fire control areas. "That puts firefighters in a difficult situation because they feel responsible for the hikers," she said.

Estimates indicate about 1,400 acres of the 3,400-acre North Pelican fire is within the wilderness, mostly between the Cold Springs trailhead and Heavenly Twins lakes, along with a "large portion" of the 29,000-acre Blanket Creek fire, which extends from Crater Lake's south boundary to the Sevenmile and Nannie Creek areas in the wilderness. An estimated 140 firefighters are on North Pelican crews while an unknown number of the 786 firefighters on the Blanket Creek fire, which is part of the larger High Cascades Complex fire, are also on crews.

Berg said the historic Honeymoon Creek cabin near the Seven Lakes Basin has been wrapped with fire protection materials.

"We'll try to keep this closure as short as we can," Berg said, cautioning the closure could remain in effect for several weeks. Depending on fire conditions, the combined forests hope to open portions of trails "once these uncertainties pass."

Based on fire forecasts, Lake of the Woods and Fish Lake, including concession services and private homes, are not expected to be affected. As a precaution, Berg said potential fire lines used to try to prevent fires from spreading are being created along the Cold Springs Road and the Big Meadow area.

The Mountain Lakes Wilderness south of the Sky Lakes Wilderness and the Mount Thielsen Wilderness north of Crater Lake not affected by the closures, although lightning strikes could create fires in those areas. The Gearhart Mountain Wilderness near Bly east of Klamath Falls had a fire last week, but that has been contained. The Rogue-Umpqua Divide Wilderness 10 miles west of Crater Lake was closed earlier this week because of fires.

— Reach freelance reporter Lee Juillerat at juilleratlee1@gmail.com or 541-880-4139.