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Fire in the hole

CRATER LAKE NATIONAL PARK — Flames from the Bybee Creek fire leaped into the Crater Lake caldera Monday as the blaze nearly doubled in size, despite attacks by firefighters trying to corral the four-day-old fire in Crater Lake National Park.

Spot fires that forced the closure of a portion of West Rim Drive Monday found their way over the Crater Lake rim, burning in a small cluster near a closed portion of the road and south of Wizard Island, according to firefighters.

Helicopter crews were hitting the spot fire with water drops as park visitors poured into nearby road pullouts to rubberneck, but as of today fire crews had no plans to scramble down the caldera rim to fight the fire by hand there.

"There's not a lot of fuel down there, so the potential for the fire to move in the caldera is pretty low," said Kean Minhata, the park's chief ranger.

"It's getting our attention but it's not a huge concern," Minhata said.

Of prime interest remained how the unusual summer northwest winds will push the main portion of the Bybee Creek's flames south and east toward Rim Village, which remains several miles away and not in immediate danger, Minhata said.

Minhata called the circumstances "less than ideal" as fire crews used portions of a fire line carved into the ground during another Bybee Creek fire that burned in part of the same area in 2006, Minhata said. They plan to add water lines to fortify that line should flames encroach upon it, he said.

Park officials, however, on Tuesday told Rim Village residents and visitors as well as those in the park's headquarters to be prepared for an evacuation should flames encroach on the village.

"This is really in preparation in the event that the fire gets too close," park spokeswoman Jennifer Evans said.

The cause of the fire remains under investigation, but park officials suspect it was human-caused because there were no lightning strikes in the area when the fire was discovered Thursday, Evans said. The exact cause of the ignition, however, remained unknown today.

The National Weather Service had detected no lightning activity in the fire area since "at least July 1," weather service meteorologist Jay Stockton said.

The fire was listed today at 720 acres, up from the 425 acres listed Monday, and it remained at 10 percent contained, with eight hand crews, five water-dropping helicopters and two retardant-dropping airplanes attacking the blaze.

"Even though we've done some great work around the sides, it's still at 10 percent (contained) because of that growth," fire spokeswoman Lucinda Nolan said.

The spot fire in the caldera is the first in two years, Evans said. A lightning strike in summer 2014 ignited a small, smoldering fire that threw out smoke but no visible flames on and off for several days that year before extinguishing, she said.

A stretch of West Rim Drive from Discovery Point to North Junction remained cordoned off today for public safety and to keep motorists from clogging lanes needed for moving firefighting equipment.

All other roads within the park remain open, as are both entrances. Visitors can bypass the West Rim Drive closure by traveling on East Rim Drive, Nolan said.

The fire, southwest of The Watchman overlook and north of Highway 62, began early Thursday afternoon, about 300 yards off the Pacific Crest Trail. Flames cut through a section blackened in 2006 by a 2,900-acre blaze that burned for three months. Another fire hit the area in 1994.

The fire is burning in a proposed wilderness area in the far upper reaches of the Rogue River watershed. It features a native plant commonly known as the Mount Mazama Collomia, a purple-petaled member of the phlox family, found in the Rogue River and Winema national forests as well as the park.

The Pacific Crest Trail remains closed from Dutton Creek Camp north to the PCT parking lot on North Entrance Road. PCT hikers should use Dutton Creek Trail to the Rim Trail as an alternate route. Lightning Springs Trail and its backcountry camp are closed.

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

A satellite map shows the location of the Bybee Creek fire in relation to Crater Lake.
Smoke from the Bybee Creek fire is seen from water level. Photo courtesy inciweb.gov