Helicopter pilot Greg Conaway of Ashland flies over Antioch Road to drop water from a nearby pond on a 10- to 12-acre fire Monday afternoon. - Bob Pennell

Crews called on to contain Sams Valley fire

Sams Valley residents lined a stretch of Antioch Road Monday afternoon watching a helicopter, two air tankers and a small plane swoop through billowing smoke in a carefully choreographed dance of fire suppression.

The Oregon Department of Forestry sent a full complement of firefighting aircraft to a roughly 10- to 12-acre wildfire reported at about 2:20 p.m. Monday in the hills near the intersection of Antioch and East Evans Creek roads. The aerial attack combined with dozer crews and firefighters building fire lines by hand to completely encircle the blaze by 7 p.m.

In all, two helicopters, two air tankers, two bulldozers, four fire trucks and about 30 people battled the blaze, said ODF spokesman Brian Ballou.

"You don't get a chance to see this every day," said Dan Holscher, an Antioch Road resident and mechanic who closed up shop and headed out to survey the scene as soon as he saw a plume of white smoke stream over a ridge.

He and his wife, Sharon, have seen four fires burn through their neck of the woods in the 13 years they've lived in Sams Valley and wanted to make sure this one wasn't threatening a friend's property.

They gathered in an open field with neighbors and other passersby, watching as helicopter pilot Greg Conaway scooped 300-gallon buckets of water from a pond and dumped them on the fire.

Conaway, an Ashland pilot who works for Las Vegas-based Silver State Helicopters, got the call from the ODF, which has a contract with Silver State. He took to the air, scoping out the fire, terrain and nearby surface water while staying in contact with crews on the ground at the fire and a little yellow plane that serves as an airborne command center.

The small plane's crew sizes up the fire and coordinates the efforts of water-dropping helicopters and lumbering retardant tankers.

"They evaluate the threat and the fire behavior to tell us where to go and also keep an eye out for wires and snags and things pilots might not see in the smoke," Conaway said.

Conaway landed his helicopter as the tankers swooped low over the trees, expelling their bright red blooms of fire retardant. The gathered crowd snapped photos with digital cameras and cell phones.

By about 4:15 p.m. dozers had carved lines around much of the fire and firefighters using hand crews had built even more line, crews reported. Trees on the perimeter of the fire sported a red protective coating.

Fire lines completely encircled the fire by 7 p.m. and all aircraft had been sent home, Ballou said. The aggressive initial attack from the air halted the uphill spread of the fire and let ground crews move in. Dozers carved in initial lines, then firefighters laid hose around the smoldering fire to deliver water where needed.

A 10-person community corrections crew and a contract water tanker were expected to spend the night on the fire, strengthening fire lines and moving toward containment. Crews likely will spend several days at the fire before it is declared contained, Ballou said.

"It's another interesting day in Sams Valley," Holscher said.

Reach reporter Anita Burke at 776-4485, or e-mail

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