Flames continued Monday to get the upper hand on firefighters stretched across Southern Oregon battling lightning-ignited blazes that threaten rural communities as they push their way through the parched landscape.
Crews from as far away as Pennsylvania have descended upon Southern Oregon as firefighters lost ground on a suite of fires that all grew Monday, four days after a series of lightning strikes triggered about 75 fires in the region.
Firefighters relied heavily on air attacks from water-dropping helicopters and retardant bombers as flames darted across treetops in some areas while creeping through brush, all in areas left tinder-dry after an extremely hot July.
“It’s really tough fire fighting — everything is so dry,” said Brian Ballou, an Oregon Department of Forestry spokesman at the 2,000-acre Brimstone fire west of Sunny Valley.
“Everything is burning so readily that it is difficult to get people out on the ground,” he said. “We have to use helicopters and retardant bombers to slow it down. That has been marginally effective. We are continually losing ground.”
The two wildfires burning near Glendale — being fought together as the Douglas Complex fire — grew by more than 50 percent to 21,000 acres Monday, with evacuations rising to 105 residences. No residences had been destroyed, according to state foresters.
Josephine County commissioners declared a state of emergency Monday morning in an emergency meeting. They are petitioning Gov. John Kitzhaber for additional resources to contain and control the fires caused by lightning Friday.
Josephine County Sheriff Gil Gilbertson on Monday afternoon issued an order closing Lower Wolf Creek Road from the town of Wolf Creek to Leland Road. He also closed Lower Graves Creek Road from Leland Road to the Rogue River amid increased fire activity in the Douglas Complex fires.
Gilbertson earlier Monday issued an evacuation order for residents living along Poorman Creek, where eight homes were threatened. These came on the heels of the weekend evacuations of residences on several nearby roads in Josephine and Douglas counties.
Ignited Friday in separate lightning strikes, the two blazes collectively were listed at just 2 percent contained late Monday. Eleven helicopters pounded the flames with water buckets, while 38 hand crews, 29 engines and two bulldozers fought flames that were pushed south by unseasonable winds, fire spokesman Cheyne Rossback said.
“We’ve got two fronts to the south and that complicates the situation, as far as getting it controlled,” Rossback said. “The two fires are only a few miles apart, but crews are working hard to contain them.”
Close to 400 more firefighters and other personnel joined the fire team Monday, Rossback said.
The Douglas Complex entered the day listed at 13,400 acres, but much of the 7,600-acre growth was attributed to infrared mapping that showed the two fires were larger than originally thought, Rossback said.
Meanwhile, 50 firefighters have set up camp in the Illinois Valley’s Oak Flat to defend area residences should flames from the 870-acre Labrador fire make their way there, according to the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest.
While Gilbertson has issued an evacuation “advisory” for Oak Flat, fire crews said Monday that could change if the threat increased.
About six miles west of Selma, the Labrador fire has slopped into the Kalmiopsis Wilderness Area that was burned during the 500,000-acre Biscuit fire of 2002. Crews now were relying on some of those old fire lines to keep in check what could become another lengthy fight there, but one of far less intensity of past fires, fire officials said.
The Labrador fire late Monday was listed as zero percent contained. Three helicopters and 14 ground crews who battled steep terrain and dodged rolling snags were digging in Monday for the long haul by setting up lines of defense well ahead of flames now burning differently than they did there 11 summers ago.
“This isn’t like the former fire which burned a lot of heavier, mature timber,” said Howard Hunter, spokesman for the Forest Service team assigned to that fire.
“In the past 11 years, this has become a brush field,” Hunter said. “We have finer fuels now, but they are more flashier. All our tactics have to be indirect.”
Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470, or email at email@example.com.