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Klondike presses on toward Agness

On a fire as large as the 150,000-acre Klondike/Taylor Creek Complex, which stretches from the west side of Grants Pass to just 20 miles inland from the coastline, the differences are like night and day.

Throughout the East Zone of the fire complex, residents of Grants Pass, Selma, Kerby and Cave Junction heaved a collective sigh of relief. Sunny, blue skies, little to no smoke and evacuation notices that dropped to Level 1 throughout Josephine County have signaled a return to normalcy.

But on the Klondike fire’s West Zone, the situation has become more serious. On Tuesday night, strong east winds blew across the fire, and once again, the Klondike jumped the Illinois River, this time to the west — where flames consumed about 1,000 acres.

This has triggered an “aggressive and adaptive approach” from the California Interagency Incident Management Team, which is managing the Klondike fire’s West Zone.

People living in Agness are on high alert, as the fire is only seven miles away; and in Gold Beach, residents are keeping a close eye on the smoke columns that are now 20 miles away from their doorsteps.

The West Zone fire managers who had “maximized every effort to keep the fire in the smallest footprint possible” now say that “our best science-based fire-spread prediction models” indicate that firing action is needed to ensure the protection of the Agness community.

East winds increase by 40 percent in September, and several canyons that are aligned east-to-west could quickly push the fire onto the western containment line. This is a primary reason the California team is “using fire to buffer the constructed fire lines.”

Planned air operations had been compromised by winds and smoke Tuesday, though winds settled down enough to allow some aviation support Wednesday.

On Thursday, the team will take advantage of winds expected to blow in from the northwest to fire up the burnout operation.

“So when we do get those northeast winds again, we’ll have a catcher’s mitt to protect the town of Agness,” said Operations Section Chief Jake Cagel.

The terrain is “crazy difficult,” and the only way firefighters can access the area right now is by helicopters and river rafts. Thus a heliobase is under construction to enable hotshot crews access into the tricky spots.

“More hand crews are arriving every day, and we got another Type 1 hotshot crew today,” said public information officer Sonny Saghera. “We have 1,116 people on this fire now.”

“Over the next week, 15 fire engines, a water tender and some management and support personnel are transferring from the east side over to the west side,” said East Zone public information officer Emily Braker. “But water tenders will still be around on the east side. We’re not pulling everything out. While the Lake Selmac fire camp is shrinking, a presence will be maintained there.”

Fire line patrols and efforts to recover and rehabilitate landscapes and roads impacted by fire suppression efforts are ongoing throughout the East Zone.

Signs up and down Highway 199 show how grateful people are to firefighters for stopping the blaze a few miles from Selma, Kerby and Cave Junction.

“People don’t realize how close we came,” said East Zone incident commander trainee Alex Robertson. “The Type 1 incident management team from Alaska really deserves accolades.”

He also said that firefighting organizations cannot keep up with demand — pointing out there was a record of 30,000 firefighters from across the USA, “basically anybody that could help,” on fires this year. “Public, private, agencies, everybody — and we were still short. Currently, we’ve still got 22,000 firefighters on the western fires.

“There is an expectation that every fire can be caught,” Robertson added. “But we’ve seen unprecedented fire growth, though we still do put out 97 to 98 percent of all fires.

“It’s painfully obvious that our fire seasons are longer. And fires are year-round, as opposed to seasonal, across the nation. We now refer to it as the ‘fire year’ as opposed to ‘fire season.’”

Robertson explained that “especially the last couple of years there’s much less night time relative humidity recovery in the Pacific Northwest. Fuels are not recovering over 24-hour-burn periods. It’s always hot in the day, but the past few years, sometimes it is staying warm at night, and the fuels stay dry, so in the morning, the fires are already burning hot.”

The Agness community is now on a Level 2 “get set” evacuation notice, and there is a community meeting scheduled for 5 p.m. Thursday outside the Agness Community Library, 3905 Cougar Lane.

Reach Cave Junction freelance writer Annette McGee Rasch at annetterasch@yahoo.com.

Night operations are shown on the Klondike fire. Photo courtesy of InciWeb.