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Klondike fire menaces communication towers

The southern edge of the Klondike fire, burning only a few miles from Selma, has kept firefighters hopping since flames spotted across the Wild and Scenic Illinois River Corridor Saturday night and quickly became established about five miles up the river road.

The blaze has edged farther south, threatening vital communication towers on Eight Dollar Mountain, where a tongue of fire started climbing uphill.

Fire managers had hoped to contain the Klondike north of Illinois River Road — a good defensive position to protect both Selma and the rest of the Illinois Valley — though now, with fire behind the mountain, the new plan is to keep it right there, until firefighters can “chase the fire” to the west toward the 2017 Checto Bar fire footprint where it’s expected to settle down.

“Priority one is to check the southern spread of the fire,” said Operations Section Chief Russ Long Thursday morning. Because heading further south, he said, there’s really no other good opportunities to “push (fire) back up toward the Chetco burn.”

Long hopes that if the fire does move farther south, the weather will cooperate to allow for more burnouts and aviation support.

More southern movement almost seems inevitable, as Incident Meteorologist Jeff Tonkin said that historically, fires in the region tend to move to the southwest over time.

The Klondike fire has grown too complex for one team to handle, so another Type 1 fire management team is settling into the Gold Beach fairgrounds, gearing up to take over the western edge of the now 59,000-acre blaze.

“We’ll be integrating with these guys over the next few days,” said Incident Commander Tom Kurth from Selma. “Our objectives are to stay focused on the southern end of the fire.”

Additional hot shot crews “trained and fit” to deal with the rugged country arrived on Wednesday to conduct more potential burnout operations.

Long also said that structure protection east of Highway 199 will be coordinated and strengthened — and that while keeping the blaze west of 199 and out of the Selma community is the goal, preparations must continue “in case that does not hold.”

While the latest weather inversion has created hazardous air conditions in Selma, Information Officer Sam Harrel wanted to console locals with the knowledge that “as uncomfortable as it is, it has really been helping us out.” Fire activity slows down beneath heavy smoke, officials say.

Smoke from the Klondike and other fires burning in Southern Oregon has sent air quality plummeting in the last few weeks, reaching "hazardous" levels in Medford and Ashland on Wednesday. On Thursday evening, air quality had improved slightly, to "unhealthy" and "very unhealthy," respectively.

With the Klondike’s continued march south and increased burnout operations so close to communities, Josephine County Sheriff Dave Daniel decided to place all residences on the west side of Highway 199 between Eight Dollar Mountain Road and the Oregon/California border on a level 1 “be ready” evacuation notice.

“Our biggest concern is if 199 gets cut off in the event of evacuations,” said Illinois Valley Fire District Chief Dennis Hoke.

Only a few miles from the eastern and southern edges of the Klondike, Highway 199 is the only major road flowing in and out of the Illinois Valley. According to Hoke, all the agency and fire officials are “working together very closely on the road congestion issues.”

The Klondike is 15 percent contained and coastal residents are closely monitoring the fire’s northwestern edge, as fire managers prepare for the worst-case scenario.

Part of the western perimeter of the Klondike fire is fairly well contained where it encounters the old Chetco Bar fire footprint, but north of that, Long said, “there’s been a large amount of activity” in areas where the Biscuit fire burned in 2002. Plans are under way to put in additional fire line, he said.

“Given some very close inspection,” he added, “there may be some opportunities to push in heavy equipment and use aviation to check that fire to reduce that spread further to the west.

“Crews have made it out to where the fire slopped out into the Silver drainage,” he said. “This is one of the toughest places you could possibly ever go to fight a fire.”

Learn more about the Klondike and Taylor Creek fires at inciweb.nwcg.gov/incident/5998/ or call 541-597-4784.

Get the latest updates on evacuation levels at www.co.josephine.or.us/News.asp?SectionID=180.

The state helps disabled people move during evacuations; register by calling the Joint Information Center at 541-474-5305.

Evacuees requiring assistance can get help from American Red Cross at 1-888-680-1455.

Sign up on citizen alerts on cellphones by calling 541-474-5300, or go online, www.co.josephine.or.us/SectionIndex.asp?SectionID=138.

Reach Illinois Valley freelance writer Annette McGee Rasch at annetterasch@yahoo.com.

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