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Firefighters gain on Oregon Gulch fire

Fire crews on Monday appeared to be gaining on the unpredictable Oregon Gulch fire that has swept through almost 37,000 acres southeast of Ashland, though many homes continued to be threatened.

“We turned the corner on it yesterday,” Link Smith, incident commander for the Oregon Department of Forestry, said Monday.

Smith and his fire team have been battling the blaze since Friday, helping establish fire lines on the west and southern flanks along the Klamath River, with 20 percent containment declared Monday.

Smith, who lives in Veneta, got the call last Thursday night and arrived at the “spike” camp at Howard Praire Resort by 6 a.m. the next day. The spike camp was a satellite of a major command center set up at TouVelle State Park to fight both the Oregon Gulch fire and the Salt Creek fire north of Gold Hill.

Because the Oregon Gulch fire has become the main focus of firefighters, the spike camp turned into the main camp Monday as the ODF moved 1,500 firefighters to the grounds at the Howard Prairie Resort.

A tent camp, showers, medical facilities and an information technology station sprang up overnight.

Smith said most fires are pushed ahead in a classic “V” pattern by prevailing winds. The Oregon Gulch fire has erupted in plumes because of erratic winds, he said. The plumes eject ash and embers into the air that rain down, setting off new fires that can sometimes trap firefighters, Smith said.

The sound of these plumes erupting is unmistakable, Smith said. “It’s full-blown thunder,” he said.

The Oregon Gulch fire has burned mostly in Oregon, but has raced across the border, torching 9,464 acres in California.

The fire has destroyed six homes and threatens 270 structures.

To the north, the Salt Creek fire, which burned 155 acres off the east fork of East Evans Creek, has been 80 percent contained. No structures were lost.

ODF is still urging residents along Copco Road south of the Oregon border to be ready to leave at a moment's notice.

Residents along Highway 66 in Oregon between the 11000 and 22000 blocks also have been told they might have to evacuate.

The Klamath River canyon, from John C. Boyle Dam to the California border, is also on notice of possible evacuaton.

Even though the Oregon Gulch fire has increased only 4,000 acres from Sunday, fire officials say weather and winds could radically change the dynamics over this week. Lightning strikes that were expected Monday night could also set off new fires that could merge with the Oregon Gulch fire, officials said.

Fire crews appreciated the temperature at the new base camp at Howard Prairie, which was about 15 degrees cooler than TouVelle. The resort continues to remain open to the public, including boat rentals.

Many firefighters slept out in the open on cots or in their tents at the south end of the resort as well as parts of the north end.

Andrew Wheeler, a medical unit leader for American Medical Response, said his crew has been treating about 50 firefighters a day for everything from blisters and insect bites to dehydration and respiratory problems.

“We have the whole gamut of medical conditions,” he said. 

Most problems can be treated at the camp, but firefighters can be taken by ambulance or airlifted to a local hospital if needed, Wheeler said.

One of the first challenges in setting up the main camp is getting access to the Internet, which is difficult in remote Howard Prairie.

“When I drive up, it’s one of the first questions people ask me,” said Mark Fouts, computer technical specialist for ODF. “When can I get on the Internet?”

He said it’s critical to get information relayed quickly to incident commanders and to others involved in the firefight.

Fouts said he contacted cellular companies that were unable to get a strong signal at the camp site.

Next, he was able to get an Ashland company to hook up a satellite dish.

“We’ve got Internet,” he said in his tiny trailer next to the lake. Fouts sleeps in a nearby tent.

He also hands out laptops to incident commanders and other fire officials who need to get on the Internet.

With so many firefighters heading to Howard Prairie, Jerry Goddard and his crew from RainFire Protection have spent a busy day installing shower units, shade structures, kitchens and tents. “We take about 15 minutes to put up each tent,” he said. “We’re up at 4:30 a.m., and we’re in bed by midnight.”

Goddard, whose company is from Yachats, said he first expected to be in Southern Oregon for five to six days, but now thinks he’ll be here for almost three weeks.

He said the shade and the cooler temperatures in the mountains have been a welcome relief.

“It’s pretty nice,” he said. “TouVelle was pretty warm.”

Reach reporter Damian Mann at dmann@mailtribune.com or on Twitter at @reporterdm.

Correction: A headline in today's print edition incorrectly described the evacuation orders along Highway 66. This story has the correct information.

A member of the Howard Prairie fire camp set-up crew takes a break Monday after helping to move the camp from TouVelle State Park.