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Oregon Gulch firefighter: 'We turned the corner'

Fire crews on Monday appeared to be gaining on the unpredictable Oregon Gulch fire that has swept through almost 37,000 acres east 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 last Friday, helping establish fire lines on the west and southern flanks along the Klamath River with 20-percent containment declared Monday.

The Department of Forestry now has 1,500 firefighters on what's now the main fire-fighting camp on the grounds of the Howard Prairie Resort.

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

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

Other fires

None of the 31 remaining fires on Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest lands have exceeded the triple-digit mark for burned acreage Monday, but the sheer amount of lightning-sparked flare ups have kept fire crews plenty busy.

The fires are split between the High Cascades and Siskiyou Moutain ranger districts.

There are 18 fires in the Camp Creek Complex burning in the High Cascades Ranger District, spread between Forest Road No. 6205 and the district's southernmost boundary. There were 415 personnel assigned to that complex Monday.

The largest fire in that complex has burned about 200 acres of wilderness west of Hemlock Lake. The blaze is coined as "Fire 790" by the firefighting incident management team assigned to fight it. Crews have not yet begun drawing containment lines, as they are focusing on lower elevation incidents. The complex's Bailey and Camp Creek fires - each about 15 acres - are fully lined and being mopped up by crews. Crews are still lining the Cluster Fire, which has grown to about 40 acres, and a cluster of five fires near Smith Rock.

"We're feeling really good, especially those fires that we grabbed ahold of," said incident management team public information officer Stan Hinatsu. "We're having a lot of success in getting these things and keeping them small."

Crews also continue work on the eight fires making up the Bitter Complex, also located in the High Cascades district. Six of those fires are under control.

Five fires remain on the Siskiyou Mountain side. The largest, the Wagner No. 1 fire, holds steady at 10 acres.

Away from the national forests, the Salt Creek fire, part of the Beaver Complex that also includes the Oregon Gulch Fire, has burned 155 acres. The fire is burning 20 miles north of Medford and is 80 percent contained.

More lightning possible

Crews remain wary of the potential for incoming thunderstorms. A fire weather watch remains in effect from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. today for the Southern Cascades, Klamath Basin, Fremont-Winema National Forest, and parts of Shasta and Modoc counties because of another round of potential lightning strikes, winds with up to 40 mph gusts and still-parched terrain.

"That's one of the things we're very concerned about. Not only the new starts, but outflow winds," Hinatsu said. "If they hit in the right spot, it could perk these fires up. We're poised for that if that could happen. It's all going to depend (on the) next day and a half on what happens."

The ODF fire danger level remains at "extreme" on public lands in Jackson and Josephine Counties. Under that advisory, the mowing of dead or dry grass, chainsaw use, the cutting, grinding or welding of metal are not allowed.

Vehicles, including ATVs, are only allowed on improved roads. Debris, barrel burning, fireworks, exploding targets and tracer ammunition are also prohibited. Open fires for camping and cooking are still prohibited on Wild and Scenic Section of the Rogue River between Grave Creek and Marial. Smoking for travelers is prohibited, except and sand or gravel bars between the water and the high water mark where there is no flammable vegetation. Fireworks are also prohibited, and travelers must carry a shovel and a gallon bucket.

Reporter Damian Mann contributed to this story.