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Scenes from the Skyline Ridge complex firefight

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Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune A firefighter with Black Hills National Forest out of South Dakota works Wednesday on the Poole Creek fire, which is part of the Skyline Ridge complex burning in Douglas County.
Advanced aircraft is on deck, but old-fashioned hand crews are key in battling complex of wildfires in Douglas County

Steam and acrid smoke billowed from the ground as a half-dozen wildland firefighters with pickaxes and shovels sifted through the ground at the north end of one fire burning Wednesday in Douglas County.

The hand crew from Tri-City Rural Fire Protection District was on the lookout for smoldering remnants of a burnout operation conducted the night before through second-generation forests and timber slash on the north end of the Poole Creek fire, according to ODF spokesperson Mary Huels.

“This is the reality of firefighting ... digging and digging and digging and digging,” Huels said as the crews felt for hotspots, dug them open and sprayed water on them.

More than 1,280 individuals from across the country are working around the clock to fight fires within the Skyline Ridge complex, of which the Poole Creek fire is the largest and least controlled fire in the complex.

“Poole is the one that’s giving us the most trouble,” Huels said. “A lot of it is the terrain.”

Down the same logging road roughly a mile north, a crew from South Dakota with the Black Hills National Forest worked with ODF hand crews, watching for torching and burning debris such as a branch or a pine cone rolling downhill — known as “rollout.”

The complex began Aug. 1 after lighting strikes sparked multiple small fires in the areas of Poole Creek, O’Shea Creek, Sweat Creek and Ike Butte, according to the complex’s Inciweb page. The fire was estimated at 4,108 acres and 23% contained, Operations Section Chief John Flannigan said in a Thursday morning update posted online.

Another 685 personnel are working the Devil’s Knob complex in Douglas County, a separate fire complex burning in the Umpqua National Forest across the Tiller Ranger District. East of the Skyline Ridge complex, the Devils Knob complex was estimated Thursday at 5,793 acres and 5% contained.

Despite temperatures in the 90s Wednesday, an inversion layer that never fully lifted had a “calming effect” on the fire, according to Huels. Crews used the conditions as an opportunity to strengthen firelines ahead of rising temperatures and dropping humidity in the forecast.

“The more time it’s calm, the more time they have to mop up what’s already burned,” Huels said.

Heat is a concern, because it’s one of the most common reasons a firefighter will need medical attention.

“Heat stress is a common cause of firefighters getting ill,” Huels said.

Firefighters are encouraged to drink at least a quart of water an hour and take frequent breaks. Sports drinks are offered to help them replenish any lost electrolytes while sweating.

“Firefighters kind of look after each other and watch for anyone acting loopy,” Huels said.

Hot, dry and unstable conditions prompted a red flag warning Thursday, according to Inciweb, and meteorologists are on the lookout for possible dry thunderstorms Friday among gradually drying conditions.

Because of hot, dry conditions during the day, Huels said they’re drawing from a “very substantial” night crew to conduct burnout operations when conditions are cooler and more conducive.

With the expanded night crews comes a risk of another type of burnout.

Four firefighters working the night shift sustained minor injuries following a rollover crash shortly before 10 a.m. Wednesday, after a firefighter driving a crew van reportedly fell asleep at the wheel, struck a guardrail, drove up a hillside and rolled over near Days Creek, according to fire officials.

Fire information officer Kent Romney said at the fire camp Wednesday that the firefighters were rushed by ambulance to a nearby hospital as a precaution. He described the injuries as bumps, bruises and bloody noses. No other injuries have been reported at the complex.

“Fortunately we have a lot of medical personnel on scene,” Romney said.

All four firefighters were medically cleared by Wednesday evening, according to the sheriff’s office.

Among air resources fighting the fire are two U.S. Army Black Hawk helicopters drawing from the Umpqua River, and three other Type 1 heavy-duty helicopters dropping retardant, including a Kaman K-MAX, a Croman S-61 air crane.

Douglas Forest Protective Association helicopter manager Jordan Lane estimated that his crew has mixed 160,000 gallons of fire retardant used by the Type 1 aircraft during the fire at a mixing area off Tiller Trail Highway north of the fire.

From a little more than two bales of powdered concentrate — each about the size of a compact car — Lane’s crew mixes the powder into a 5,000-gallon tank. From there, the retardant is pumped to a “dip tank” from which the helicopters draw.

Lane’s mixing crew largely sat idle and at the ready waiting for the inversion layer to lift, and visibility to improve. Because of the mixing area’s proximity to the fire, helicopter pilots on a strict flight path can make their target drops within minutes.

Lane timed one K-MAX pilot at 2 minutes, 40 seconds, and counted 122 drops between the two helicopters.

“It was pretty impressive to watch,” Lane said.

Reach reporter Nick Morgan at 541-776-4471 or nmorgan@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @MTCrimeBeat.

Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune Firefighters work on a backburn at the Skyline Ridge Complex near Canyonville on Wednesday.
Oregon Department of Forestry firefighters work on a backburn on the Poole Creek fire Wednesday, part of the Skyline Ridge complex burning outside Canyonville. [Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune]
Firefighters work on a backburn of the Poole Creek fire Wednesday. [Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune]
A team of firefighters from the Tri-City Rural Fire Protection District work the north end of the Poole Creek fire in Douglas County. [Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune]
A firefighter with Black Hills National Forest out of South Dakota works on the Poole Creek fire Wednesday. [Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune]
Firefighters conduct a backburn at the Skyline Ridge complex Wednesday. [Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune]