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Forest Service plans to evacuate Sky Lakes hunters, hikers

The U.S. Forest Service will take to the sky and the trails to get hunters and hikers out of the Sky Lakes Wilderness Area that was closed Thursday to the public because of two High Cascades Complex wildfires burning unchecked there.

Crews on Friday began hiking into the 116,300-acre wilderness area on the South Cascades in search of hikers on trails, including the Pacific Crest Trail, and hunters in this backwoods area that is very popular during a black-tailed deer hunt set to open Saturday.

Plans are to use a helicopter to help spot camps near the Blanket Creek and North Pelican first and direct ground crews to them for evacuation, fire spokesman Paul Galloway said.

"We're going to have some folks do some sweeps, as we've begun to do that today," Galloway said Friday afternoon.

"There are a lot of access points and a lot of ground to cover, so it may be a while before we make contact with everyone in there," Galloway said.

Crews plan to start near the perimeters of the Blanket Creek and North Pelican fires so they can first contact those closest to harm's way, then work their way outward, Galloway said.

Firefighting efforts in the ongoing Blanket Creek fire as well public-safety concerns led Forest Service officials Thursday to order the immediate ban on access to the nearly 182-square-mile area of eastern Jackson and western Klamath counties.

The area, which includes nearly 76,000 acres within the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest with the remainder in the Fremont-Winema National Forest, includes 35 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail and is a popular getaway for hikers and fall big-game hunters.

The general archery season for black-tailed deer and Roosevelt elk began Sept. 2, while the High Cascades rifle hunt for black-tailed buck deer begins Saturday.

Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest spokeswoman Chamise Kramer said the onset of the rifle hunt, for which the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife offered 3,000 tags, was the impetus for pushing forward with the closure that is unprecedented in the wilderness area's 33-year designation.

"They were really worried about people heading into the Sky Lakes Wilderness for that (hunt)," Kramer said. "They were worried about hunters getting into the wilderness and not being able to get them out."

Galloway said there was no way to tell Friday how many people were in the wilderness area.

Michell Dennehy, the ODFW's Wildlife Division spokeswoman, said the Sky Lakes Wilderness is a small part of the overall hunt area and tag-holders can go elsewhere.

Dennehy said Wildlife Division staff have not discussed this particular hunt, which ends Sept. 15. Tag-holders also can hunt the longer general rifle season that begins Sept. 30, she said.

The closure order was in effect through Dec. 31, but it could be rescinded sooner, forest officials said. It is an expansion of previous public closures in response to the Blanket Creek fire, including the OHV trails system outside of Prospect, according to the Forest Service.

A similar closure enacted Tuesday involves the entire Rogue-Umpqua Divide Wilderness Area in northern Jackson and southern Douglas counties, Galloway said.

The lightning-caused Blanket Creek fire is part of the High Cascades Complex set of fires burning in northeast Jackson, southeast Douglas and northwest Klamath counties since Aug. 13. It was listed Friday afternoon as 18 percent contained, with an estimated containment date of Oct. 15.

The North Pelican fire, which is mainly on the northern slopes of Pelican Butte, moved west into the wilderness area earlier this week. It was listed Friday at 3,450 acres and 25 percent contained.

— Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@mailtfribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.