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Firefighters from across nation come to Southern Oregon’s aid

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Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune A grass fire burned 5 acres Sunday on the Bear Creek Greenway near Camping World.
Firefighters from across the country are aiding Southern Oregon firefighters amid extreme fire conditions. Photo courtesy of Medford Fire-Rescue
Firefighters, engines on way from at least seven states

Firefighters from across the nation are coming to buttress Southern Oregon forces amid explosive fire conditions.

A strike team with members from Arizona and Tennessee began an assignment Monday morning with the Oregon Department of Forestry Southwest Oregon District. The team is based at ODF’s Medford office.

With the addition of a Grants Pass-area firefighter, the strike team will field 11 firefighters to help protect the southwest corner of the state.

The team brought five fire engines from three cities in Arizona plus Knoxville, Tennessee, said Tim Soul, fire chief for rural-metro operations in Yuma, Arizona.

“We’re always grateful for the opportunity to come and assist our neighbors,” he said.

Soul said he considers any state under threat from wildfire to be a neighbor.

Locals have welcomed the out-of-town firefighters with open arms. Soul said residents thanked the firefighters for coming when the team was out eating dinner Sunday night.

The team will boost ODF’s initial attack capabilities, allowing the agency and its partners to stamp out fires before they rage out of control.

"If you can stop a fire in the initial attack phase, not only is it going to be smaller, it's not going to impact the community for as long. It's not going to be as expensive," said ODF Southwest Oregon District Public Information Officer Natalie Weber.

So far this summer, Jackson and Josephine counties have faced 175 fires. ODF and partner agencies stopped all the fires before they could grow into major wildfires. The largest burned 60 acres outside the town of Rogue River, Weber said.

“That's a pretty big accomplishment considering what we're up against this year with drought, the really dry fuels, the heat that we've been having as well as just the general topography and how fire-prone our area is,” Weber said.

Oregon faced a record-breaking heat wave in June, and southwest Oregon is in the midst of a multi-year drought.

Southern Oregon is home to the nation’s largest wildfire. The fast-growing Bootleg fire east of Klamath Falls had burned at least 343,755 acres as of Monday. More than 2,000 firefighters are battling the fire.

Weber said firefighting resources are already being stretched thin by wildfires in the West. Having an extra strike team in place will cut out the two-to-four day travel time needed if ODF has to call for outside help.

The Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest said Monday it has brought 15 additional engines to the area and another three engines are on the way. The engines come from as far away as Florida, with others coming from Arkansas, Nevada and Alaska. The Alaskan engine will spend part of its journey on a barge, Forest Service officials said.

Monsoon moisture may bring thunder storms and lightning to Southeast Oregon at a time when fires are already exhibiting extreme behavior, Forest Service officials said.

“Although the lightning activity predicted early this week is expected to occur east of us, we are prepared for the worst, and hoping for the best,” said Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest Assistant Fire Staff Mike McCann.

In addition to the fire engines, a Type 2 initial attack crew, a dozer and a water tender are also poised to respond, Forest Service officials said.

Forest Service firefighters from throughout Southern Oregon are working on Oregon fires, with some mobilized to Washington fires, officials said.

Aircraft continue to fly out of the Medford Airtanker Base in response to multiple fires. Pilots had dropped over 725,000 gallons of retardant on 20 wildfires as of Monday, Forest Service officials said.

On Sunday, multiple local firefighting agencies responded to a fire that burned 5 acres along the Bear Creek Greenway, Interstate 5 and a long-shuttered meat packing plant site overgrown with weeds. The fire burned close to long rows of recreational vehicles parked at the Camping World camper dealership in Medford.

Information about the extent of damage at Camping World wasn’t immediately available, although firefighters did stop most of the fire at a chain link fence that borders the business.

California firefighters temporarily stationed in Ashland due to extreme fire danger in Oregon helped on that Sunday fire, Weber said.

Hosing of charred areas continued Monday.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.