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How the Ramsey Canyon fire was won

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When the Ramsey Canyon conflagration roared to life north of Sams Valley on Aug. 22, firefighters hit it with everything they had. And they had a lot, thanks in part to fires already burning elsewhere in Southern Oregon.

The fire, which erupted on the site of the 1994 Hull Mountain fire, had the potential to turn disastrous. It was burning in extremely rugged terrain and in an area with nearly 200 homes. The entire region had essentially been without rain since June 18, when .08 inches of precipitation were recorded. High temperatures in nearby Medford had been running in the 90s and low 100s virtually nonstop since mid-July.

But coordination between local and state fire officials as well as a conflagration declaration by Gov. Kate Brown seven hours after the fire started helped put the wheels in motion to gain the upper hand within the first 48 hours. Ironically, the presence of the numerous homes and their accompanying roads also played a significant role.

By the end of this week, eight days after the fire started, residents in the 183 houses near the blaze were breathing easier, as firefighters strengthened control lines and incident commanders eased up on evacuation notices.

The 1,971-acre conflagration was listed as 95 percent contained Friday and had not grown in size for several days. Crews have created a 300-foot buffer around most of the burned area, and a special team set up to attack the fire has now turned operations back to the Oregon Department of Forestry.

Residents along the major roads around the fire are now at a Level 1, “be ready,” evacuation notice, downgraded from levels 2 and 3 over the past week.

When the fire broke out, many residents were forced to evacuate, but firefighters stopped houses from being destroyed. Only one abandoned structure was lost.

“This thing grew so incredibly fast,” said Ashley Lertora, public information officer for the Ramsey Canyon fire. “Every fire we keep small and get out quickly, it’s better for everybody.”

The main factors that brought the fire to heel were local and state coordination, cooler weather, the almost immediate availability of fire equipment, including helicopters, and a road system that ringed the fire area and provided firefighters with a major starting point for their fire lines.

Lertora said local county fire crews were called in to protect houses, while wildland crews determined how to attack the blaze, using specially trained teams that have techniques to stop it from spreading.

“They really work together at the local level,” she said.

The fire was discovered at 12:45 p.m., Aug. 22. Within the first few hours, helicopters from the Klondike fire in Josephine County began dropping retardant and water to cool the advancing flames, allowing time for bulldozers to establish entry points that connected to logging roads.

Both local fire crews and the Oregon State Fire Marshal’s office made a determination that more resources were necessary, and contacted the governor’s office.

Within about three hours of its start, the blaze had ripped through 500 acres. At 8 p.m., the governor declared a conflagration, leading to the formation of a higher-level incident management team. Once a conflagration is declared, more resources are brought to bear and crews are immediately mobilized.

Protecting structures and creating a control ring around the fire were priorities.

“The page goes out, and we get our stuff together,” Lertora said. “We have people coming from all corners of the state.”

Lertora came from Astoria, which she said has also had a smoky summer.

On Hull Mountain, the fire headed down a steep flank above East Evans Creek.

“We had a special crew that lit a fire going uphill to meet up with the front edge of the fire burning down the hill,” Lertora said. “That’s what we call fighting fire with fire.”

But with extremely dry conditions, that strategy poses risks.

“It can go horribly wrong if not done correctly,” she said.

In this case, winds coming out of the northwest helped push the backfire uphill, depriving the main fire of fuel. More often backfires are started near a ridge-line and carefully backed down a mountain for better control.

Within a few days, the lines appeared to be holding well, but the winds changed to come from the east, putting fire crews on high alert.

“The fire lines held very well,” Lertora said.

Several days of cooler weather, with highs in the 80s, also helped mop-up operations and gave firefighters time to broaden control lines.

“We have lucked out weather-wise,” she said. “It helped keep the fire small.”

On Wednesday, unhealthy air filled the skies over the Medford area, but Lertora said that wasn’t from the Ramsey Canyon fire. Instead the smoke was likely from the Klondike fire to the west of Grants Pass.

With Ramsey Canyon well controlled, the fire operations will be turned back over to local Oregon Department of Forestry crews, who will patrol and continue mop-up duties.

“Residents should feel better, but there is still some fire season left,” Lertora said.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or dmann@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on www.twitter.com/reporterdm.

Inciweb photoEarly attack by helicopter and planes dropping water and retardant helped corral the Ramsey Canyon fire before it reached nearby homes.