Local firefighters battle Alaska wildfire

Nearly 30 firefighters from the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest have been deployed to battle a wildfire in Alaska as the local fire season begins to heat up.

But both the U.S. Forest Service and the Oregon Department of Forestry say they are ready for the annual Fourth of July holiday that often sparks a spate of wildfires in southwestern Oregon.

"The fire season started June 11 but the Fourth of July is the real meat of the matter — that's generally when fire season really starts to ramp up," said Brian Ballou, spokesman for the ODF's Southwest Oregon District.

The agency, which protects U.S. Bureau of Land Management, state, county and private forest and brush lands, has firefighters trained and ready, he said.

"We are well poised for this fire season," added forest spokeswoman Patty Burel. "We've got fire crews for initial attack. And we've got other people who can go out on fires."

Between the two agencies, more than 200 firefighters are expected to be on hand if a wildfire erupts in Jackson or Josephine counties. Contract crews are also available if needed.

Although May and June were relatively mild, the next three months are predicted to bring above normal temperatures to the region, according to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise.

The forest sent its 20-member Rogue River Interagency Hot Shot crew along with a helicopter and seven helicopter rappel crew members to Alaska, where they are believed to be deployed to the Caribou Hills on the Kenai Peninsula southwest of Anchorage. That fire, which is 61 percent contained, has burned about 55,265 acres with more than 500 firefighters from around the country battling the blaze.

Historically, wildfires in Alaska begin to be dampened by summer rains.

A local BLM employee also has been deployed to a wildfire in North Dakota as part of an overhead fire management team.

"It's been fairly quiet so far but with the Fourth of July just around the corner, we're prone for a change," Burel said. "It just takes a few lightning storms."

As needed, the Boise fire center will dispatch an air tanker to the base at the Medford airport. The agency has 16 air tankers at its disposal nationwide, she noted.

An ODF-contracted air tanker is expected to be based in Medford early in July, Ballou said.

In addition to the firefighters, the forest also has nine fire engines of varying sizes deployed across the forest, Burel said.

The public needs to be extremely careful when venturing onto public lands as the forests continue to dry out, she said.

"There are no fireworks allowed on the forests," she said, referring to a restriction that also applies to BLM and other state-protected lands.

Like Burel, Ballou urges the public to be aware of the growing fire danger this time of year. Rural residents should also make their homes as fire-resistant as possible, he added.

That includes removing brush, dead trees and other fire-prone vegetation within 100 feet of a home, officials recommend. They also advise pruning trees near a home to remove "ladder" fuels.

"It's never too late to take a whack at tall grass around your home," Ballou said.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.

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