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Firefighter killed on Josephine County blaze Thursday

The Tallowbox Fire burns near Highway 238 in the Applegate Valley Thursday. [Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune]

A firefighter was killed Thursday in Josephine County as crews continued their fight against a wave of lightning-sparked wildfires across Southern Oregon.

The contract firefighter, who was struck by a tree, succumbed to their injuries at Asante Rogue Regional Medical Center in Medford, according to ODF Southwest Oregon District spokeswoman Natalie Weber.

When reached by phone, Weber said the firefighter’s death was heavy on the minds of everyone at the agency. Processing the events herself, she struggled to put the loss into words.

“We’re all extremely saddened by this loss,” Weber said. “It’s an indescribable situation.”

The individual’s name was not immediately released pending notification of next of kin.

“Our deepest sympathies are with the family, friends and fellow firefighters during this time,” said a news advisory from ODF and BLM.

It was the second report of a firefighter killed this month in Southern Oregon.

On Aug. 10, 27-year-old Collin Hagan, of Michigan, was killed while fighting a fire north of Crater Lake. Hagan was struck by a tree while battling the Big Swamp Fire near Oakridge.

On the fire lines Thursday in Jackson County, another firefighter needed to be removed from the fire lines after suffering a heat-related illness. The firefighter was ultimately treated by Applegate Valley Fire District personnel at the fire’s staging area.

ODF and BLM reported late Thursday night they were engaged with 56 fires across the ODF Southwest District following Wednesday night thunderstorms across the region, while the U.S. Forest Service was battling 14 fires in the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest.

The fires are in remote areas. Weber said crews are facing treacherous terrain, hazard trees and limited access, and in some cases crews need to hike.

Eight of the ODF fires were in Jackson County, named as the Westside Complex, and 48 were in Josephine County, called the Lightning Gulch Complex. The fires were in various stages, from active operations to 100% lined and mopped up, affecting both private and BLM land.

The largest fire, estimated at 40 acres Thursday, is the Keeler Fire. The Tallowbox Fire, originally reported as an estimated 30 acres, is now estimated at 5. The fires are two of four blazes located near Tallowbox Mountain in the Applegate Valley to the east of Thompson Creek Road, ODF said.

In the same area, the Ladybug Gulch Fire proved to be the most challenging of the day, requiring multiple retardant drops from ODF Large Air Taker 104, and was estimated at 21 acres, ODF said. The fourth fire in the area, the Tallowbox Cutoff Fire, estimated to be a tenth of an acre, was 100% lined and 80% mopped up by Thursday night.

In Josephine County, the Hog Creek Fire, located north of Merlin, and the Rum Creek Fire, located near Rum Creek north of Galice, are both estimated to be 30 acres in size. The Granite Hill Fire is estimated to be 14 acres in size, located north of Grants Pass and east of Colonial Valley.

Weather conditions aided firefighters on the line, as temperatures remained cooler than expected and predicated thunderstorms did not materialize, prompting the National Weather Service Medford Office to cancel a red flag warning. The milder conditions contributed to slightly decreased fire behavior, allowing firefighters to hold containment lines and complete mop-up operations on some incidents.

No homes are threatened, and no evacuation orders have been placed, ODF reported.

On the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest, crews chased fires over much of the forest Thursday. Three fires were contained and one is controlled, the Forest Service reported late Thursday night.

There were seven reports of smoke that were not found. Aerial reconnaissance flights will continue to search for the reported smokes Friday.

All 12 of the confirmed fires are being actively suppressed, the Forest Service reported. Four of the fires are staffed with smokejumpers from BLM-Burns, USFS Redding and USFS Redmond smokejumpers. Rappellers from USFS John Day and Grande Ronde are staffing two fires. The rest of the fires are staffed with ground-based firefighters, with engines, tenders and fallers.

The fires are spread across three ranger districts on the forest, and all were three-quarters of an acre or less as of Thursday night.

The largest fire was the Iron Fire located near Steve Peak. One fire on the Siskiyou Mountain Ranger District near Beaver Creek was controlled. Two fires on the Wild Rivers Ranger District near the Oregon Caves were contained.

Two fires are on the north end of the High Cascades Ranger District off Highway 230, with six fires on the border of Siskiyou Mountain Ranger District and Wild Rivers Ranger District in the Swan Mountain area.

For more information, see www.swofire.com, the ODF Facebook page at www.facebook.com/ODFSouthwest and the RRSNF Facebook page at www.facebook.com/R6RRSNF

Firefighters were also engaged Friday with fires in the Umpqua National Forest to the north and Klamath National Forest to the south.

In the Umpqua, firefighters were battling 10 fires. All of the fires are staffed by resources of smokejumpers, heli-rappellers, engine modules, fallers and hand crews. Helicopters were providing support to firefighters on the ground with water drops.

Forest priorities included extinguishing two fires near the Bohemia Mining District on the North Umpqua Ranger District, the Forest Service said.

In Siskiyou County, California, 14 fires were sparked by lightning Wednesday.

Five fires were reported in the Happy Camp/Oak Knoll Ranger District, including the Shanty Fire south of Seiad near Blue Mountain, the Snowshoe Fire in the northwest corner of the Marble Mountain Wilderness, the Cold Fire, also in the Marble Mountains, the Fork Fire about a mile east of West Branch Campground, and the Kemper Fire in the same area as the Fork. The largest fire in the group was a quarter acre, according to an advisory from Klamath National Forest.

Six fires were detected on the Scott River side of the Salmon/Scott Ranger District, some of which were being managed by California Interagency Incident Management Team 12, which is from the McKinney Fire, the agency reported.