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Fires complicate eclipse planning

As the solar eclipse approaches on Aug. 21, emergency personnel are doing everything from preparing for overloaded cellphone systems to battling wildfires that could threaten residents and tourists.

Fire and weather officials briefed Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., on those efforts as the senator visited Medford on Monday.

With wildfires already burning across Oregon, National Weather Service Meteorologist Ryan Sandler said thunderstorms are in the forecast. Lightning can strike outside areas of rainfall, he noted.

"We have existing fires and we may see more fires ignite with the thunderstorms this week," Sandler said.

He said it's too early for the National Weather Service to offer a forecast for Aug. 21.

While the Rogue Valley will see a partial eclipse, people in the path of totality further north in Oregon will see the moon completely block out the sun's face. The path for viewing a total eclipse stretches in an arc from Oregon to South Carolina in the United States.

People are expected to flood the Willamette Valley and the Madras area in Central Oregon to see the total eclipse.

If clouds drift over the Willamette Valley as the day of the eclipse approaches, Sandler said crowds will scramble to reach areas with clear skies — further worsening traffic.

The influx of eclipse fans will likely strain cellphone systems. Public agencies are readying their land lines and radios in case cellphones are out of commission.

Emergency personnel said people were planning to climb 10,479-foot tall Mount Jefferson, but Willamette National Forest Service announced Monday the area is closing because of a wildfire, and it is expected to remain closed through the eclipse. The mountain in the path of totality will offer a phenomenal site as the moon's shadow races across the surface of the Earth. Unprepared climbers who wind up in trouble could trigger search and rescue operations. Extra rangers will be on duty to help out the public.

Although the Rogue Valley is outside the total eclipse zone, emergency personnel said they expect people to scale 9,495-foot-tall Mount McLoughlin northeast of Medford, or Medford's smaller hill, Roxy Ann Peak, which reaches 3,576 feet.

Crater Lake National Park officials said they don't expect a massive influx of eclipse viewers because the park is outside the path of totality. However, visitors traveling to and from the eclipse could take a detour to visit iconic Crater Lake.

The Spruce Lake fire burning in the national park could complicate or change those visitors' plans. West Rim Drive has been closed and Rim Village and the park's headquarters have been put on notice they may be asked to evacuate.

With so much focus on wildfires as the eclipse looms, Wyden said he is battling in Congress to win consistent, adequate funding for wildfire prevention efforts, like forest thinning.

Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest Deputy Fire Staff Rob Budge said the initial work to cut, pile and burn wildfire fuels is costly. But conducting prescribed burning to maintain those thinned areas is far cheaper.

If federal agencies don't get enough funding to maintain the thinned areas, the vegetation and trees regrow after seven to 10 years — putting conditions back to square one, he said.

Jim Whittington, public affairs officer with the Medford District Bureau of Land Management, said federal agencies are also dealing with an outdated system of hiring firefighters only on a seasonal basis. Fire seasons have grown longer and firefighting now requires more expertise and training.

If firefighters were hired for year-round work, they could battle wildfires and also conduct fuel thinning in the off-season. Experienced wildfire incident managers are retiring, and younger workers don't have opportunities for permanent jobs and career advancement, Whittington warned.

"Every year we hemorrhage future leaders," he said.

Reach staff reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@mailtribune.com. Follow her at www.twitter.com/VickieAldous.

U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., far left, listens to a forecast report from Ryan Sandler of the National Weather Service at the Medford Bureau of Land Management office on Monday. [Mail Tribune / Andy Atkinson]
U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., asks questions about fire activity in Crater Lake National Park at the Medford Bureau of Land Management office on Monday. [Mail Tribune / Andy Atkinson]