Crews struggle against smoky wildfires across region

Flames continued 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 crews lost ground on a suite of fires that all grew today, 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 and creept through brush in others, all 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 wildfires burning near Glendale — being fought together as the Douglas Complex of fires — 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. At least part of that growth was the result of better mapping, officials said.

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. Close to 400 more firefighters and other personnel joined the fire team today, Rossback said.

Josephine County commissioners declared a state of emergency this morning in an emergency meeting. They are petitioning Gov. John Kitzhaber for additional resources to contain and control the fires caused by lightning Friday.

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 a Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest spokesman.

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.

Thick smoke from the surrounding wildfires caused Medford's air quality to drop to unhealthy levels late this afternoon, with enough particulates in the air to cause health problems for residents.

The air-quality index value 164 for particulate matter, with indexes of 150-200 considered poor enough that everyone could begin experiencing health effects, according to the state Department of Environmental Quality.

At that level, sensitive groups such as children, elderly or those with respiratory problems may experience more serious health effects, according to the DEQ.

Levels under 50 are considered good air-quality, with poor quality starting with an index of 100. "Very unhealthy" conditions occur at an index above 200 and hazardous conditions begin at an index above 300.

Josephine County communities of Provolt and Cave Junction were suffering with hazardous levels of particulate matter that were more than twice those in Medford. The air quality there was poor enough to potentially to cause serious health effects even for healthy people, according to the DEQ.

In the 6 p.m. reading, Cave Junction recorded an air quality index of 345 with Provolt's at 343.

Grants Pass, however, came in this evening at 131, high enough to be unhealthy for sentitive groups.

The Rogue Valley's air deteriorated rapidly when winds not only blew in the smoke from low elevations but also carried in parts of the thick plume of smoke that normally rises vertically from wildfires, according to the National Weather Service in Medford.

— Staff reports

Read more in Tuesday's Mail Tribune.

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