Klondike fire crews brace for 'long fight ahead'
With the Taylor Creek and Klondike fires merged at nearly 120,000 acres — and still growing — many southwestern Oregonians fear the blaze is poised to enter the record books alongside the 2002 Biscuit fire and last year’s Chetco Bar fire.
In an effort to quell that possibility, fire managers brought in reinforcements from California Saturday with the goal of full suppression.
Because of the fire’s size and complex challenges, operations have been split between two teams: Taylor Creek Klondike East based near Selma, and Taylor Creek Klondike West, now headquartered at the Curry County Fairgrounds in Gold Beach.
California’s Interagency Incident Management Team 4 took over operations on the entire west-facing flank of the fire complex Saturday. This team possesses experience with steep terrain and dry fuel types, and plans to go into “full suppression mode” to protect coastal residents.
“We all know that they can’t stop this, it won’t be over until the rains come,” said Selma resident Marilyn Mooshie, before the arrival of the new fire teams.
“We’re doing everything we can under the highest preparedness level that exists, for the long fight ahead,” said Operations Chief Russ Long at a recent Klondike fire meeting in Selma.
“Why are fires lasting longer?” asked a man in the crowd.
“Well, that’s the million-dollar question, and I don’t know if I’m qualified to answer it,” Long responded. “But I will tell you this, I started fighting fires in 1990, and a big fire in 1990 was like 8,000 acres.”
Klondike Incident Commander Tom Kurth then took the mic, adding, “anecdotally, in the short term, we’re seeing longer fire seasons, warmer temperatures and bigger fuel buildups.”
Indeed, the National Weather Service predicts hotter and drier than usual weather for the next few months.
“The opportunity for the Klondike to be a short-term fire was lost in the early days when it jumped the Illinois River the first time and became established on the north and east side of the river,” said Barbara Ullian, Friends of the Kalmiopsis founder.
“That was the lesson of the 2013 Labrador fire in the same area, when forest service managers kept that fire’s footprint to 2,000 acres by focusing on preventing it from crossing the river,” she said. “Conversely, the Douglas Complex fire, which started in the same storm but is located a little to the north — that fire burned in homogeneous private industrial forests and grew to almost 50,000 acres.”
“I am so fire-fatigued,” Mooshie said. “I really wish forest managers would take heed of the growing body of fire science to manage our forests in tune with our natural fire ecology. Our forests would be in much better shape, and our fires would probably be smaller.”
“Fortunately the Klondike and Taylor fires have not damaged any structures, and from what I can tell, it’s producing a natural pattern of fire-burn mosaics the way nature intended,” said Dominick DellaSala, chief scientist at the Ashland-based Geos Institute.
“I am worried, however, that if the fire spreads into the industrial forestry landscape, under extreme fire weather like what we have now, it will blow up,” he said. “Several regional studies show that industrial forestry contributes to more severe forest fires by clearcutting fire-resistant native forests and replacing them with fire-bomb plantations.”
DellaSala added that “we need to redouble our efforts to help communities prepare defensible space as fire seasons are getting longer and more extreme from climate change.”
“It is not a battle ground,” said Klondike fire behavior analyst Chris Moore. “It’s just the way this place has evolved — it’s a natural process. The fuels will keep growing back. And with difficult topography, hot temperatures and dry lightning, when the winds align with the drainages, well, it gets complicated to put a fire out in this wilderness.”
Luke Ruediger, Siskiyou conservation director with the Klamath Forest Alliance, noted how recent fire footprints, including the Chetco Bar, Labrador and portions of the Biscuit fire, are acting as natural barriers — but he said other sections of the Biscuit fire north of the Illinois River that “carry fire” will continue to fuel the Klondike to the northwest and the south.
Ruediger thinks the Klondike fire will likely “smolder around inside the Biscuit fire footprint,” but says whenever the inversion lifts and the wind blows, it will become active.
“No amount of suppression will change that reality,” he said. “The fuels out there are conducive to fire, and the weather will drive fire severity and spread as it always does in our region. This means a mosaic of mixed-severity fire and continued smoke for the remainder of fire season.”
The weather driving the Klondike fire kicked back into active mode Friday, and gusty winds were expected to continue to fuel another “critical fire event” through Monday.
“(Friday) night we had fire barreling out,” said Robert Bertolina, who manages night operations on the Klondike fire. “We haven’t seen fire burning like that for a few nights. And it’s still going.”
Public Information Officer Peter Frenzen said ample resources and a lot of people are working to contain and secure the eastern perimeter of the south-moving fire, which is burning just three miles from Selma and about six miles from Cave Junction.
“We’re focusing on a big primary containment line going pretty far south to protect the communities along Highway 199,” he said. “When we get the opportunity and the critical fire weather passes, then we’ll work from the southeast anchor point to tie that containment line across to the Chetco fire burn scar where there’s not much fuel.”
Frenzen also noted some fire activity on the lower slopes of Eight Dollar Mountain, but said the vital communications towers up top are well-protected because “fuels have been treated and fire-retardant gel is applied to the towers.”
There were 830 personnel assigned to the Klondike fire Saturday, and 632 personnel were working on the Taylor Creek fire. Operations are supported by heavy-lift aircraft whenever the smoke clears enough to allow for flight.
Last Wednesday the Josephine County Sheriff’s Office placed all residences west of Highway 199, from Eight Dollar Road to the California border, to level 1 “be ready” evacuation status.
Evacuation levels were downgraded on Galice Creek Road to level 1; and the only current level 3 evacuation status in place in Josephine County is now on Illinois River Road from the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest boundary to the west.
Bear Camp Road and Galice Access Road are both closed. Bear Camp Road is being used as a fire line.
Roadblocks are located at Briggs Valley Road at Redwood Highway; Illinois River Road at milepost 2.5; Taylor Creek Road near the 600 block; Galice Access Road at Galice Road; Bear Camp Road near Agness; Shan Creek Road at the end of the pavement; and Eight Dollar Road at the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest boundary.
A community meeting on the Klondike fire is scheduled for 6 p.m. Monday, Aug. 20, at Illinois Valley High School, 625 E. River St., Cave Junction. For fire information, call 541-474-5305.
Evacuation levels can be found at Josephine County Emergency Management’s Facebook page.
To see an evacuation map, go to http://bit.ly/joco-evac
For air quality information, see https://oraqi.deq.state.or.us/home/map or www.oregonsmoke.blogspot.com.
Reach Illinois Valley freelance writer Annette McGee Rasch at firstname.lastname@example.org.