Still looking for breathing room

Still looking for breathing room

As a smoky maelstrom swirled overhead early Tuesday afternoon, Toby Beck busily loaded rafts with other family members and friends near the mouth of Grave Creek in preparation for a four-day float trip on the wild section of the lower Rogue River.

"Not until two days ago when we were planning our shuttle did we realize we had these fire issues," said the minister from Vancouver, Wash.

"So we thought we would at least go look," he said. "After talking to the ranger and other people, we decided to do it."

While the area is socked in with smoke from the more than 30,000 acres burning in the vicinity, Beck, who has run the lower Rogue numerous times, said their safety wouldn't be hampered by the smoke.

"I'm looking at the first rapids here and I can see what I need to see in order to run it safely," he said. "But mostly the smoke will detract from the beauty we usually see to run it. It's more an irritation."

"The smoke gets into your eyes, but I think we'll be OK," his wife, Kristin, said, adding, "I'm the cautious one."

The Becks, along with friends Greg and Sally Plitt and four others, just squeezed through the window before the lower section was closed because of the fires that have burned about 30,000 acres in southwestern Oregon since they were sparked by dry lightning on Friday.

About 75 fires have been reported, with the largest being the 21,000-acre Douglas Complex fire. Some 400 firefighters have been assigned to the blaze, while air tankers and helicopters attack from the air when visibility allows.

The Big Windy complex northwest of Merlin has grown to about 2,200 acres, fire officials report.

The Whiskey complex outside Tiller is now 2,400 acres.

Gov. John Kitzhaber has declared a state of emergency for Josephine and Douglas counties, which allows the National Guard to assist firefighting efforts.

On Saturday, Kitzhaber invoked the Conflagration Act, meaning fire agencies from across the state can be dispatched to protect buildings.

No structures have been destroyed, but about 400 homes are threatened. More than 100 have received evacuation notices.

The fires are burning on both private and public lands in northern Jackson, southern Douglas and Josephine counties.

Meanwhile, the National Weather Service announced Tuesday it would issue a red-flag warning at midnight alerting residents of possible lightning strikes that could start new fires in Curry, Josephine, Jackson, Douglas and Klamath counties. Very dry conditions and gusty winds could cause any fires that develop to spread rapidly, the watch said.

A low-pressure system is moving in off the Oregon Coast, bringing moist, unstable air that could develop thunderstorms through tonight, the forecast said.

Because of the extreme dry conditions coupled with the smoke, firefighters are concentrating on an aerial attack before moving in with a large ground assault, said Don Ferguson, a firefighter in his 44th fire season.

"We're not able to engage the fires on the perimeters in very many places," he said. "Perimeter control is at a premium.

"We are flying a lot of retardant and dropping a lot of water," he added. "The retardant and water slows it down and gives you some tactical options."

However, because the forests are bone dry, the fires are explosive, creating deadly threats to firefighters on the ground, said Ferguson, whose last fire was in Arizona, where 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots died late last month.

"The fire behavior is the issue," he said. "The terrain, slope and fuels: they are all lined up. And when you look at the probability of ignition — that means when you have 10 sparks, how many will start a fire — we are pretty close to 100 percent now."

The blanket of smoke from the fires also has made it difficult to keep firefighters safe, he said.

"We have fires we can't find — we can't see them for the smoke," he said.

However, the firefighters have met their primary objective to preserve life and protect property, he said, noting there have been no houses lost, no major injuries.

While the smoke makes it difficult to see the fires, it is suppressing the flames, said Brian Ballou, spokesman for the Oregon Department of Forestry's Southwest Oregon District.

"This inversion layer is keeping the smoke pressed to the ground — there is not enough wind to fan the flames," Ballou said early Tuesday afternoon before the winds kicked up. "We are able to take advantage of that and get some fire lines re-established."

However, like Ferguson, the veteran firefighter cited the extreme danger posed by sending firefighters into the swirling maelstrom.

"It is a significant concern," he said. "When you have this kind of smoke impairing your visibility, you can't tell if you have a spot fire a couple of hundred yards off your fire line."

As a result, firefighters are relying heavily on their extensive radio network to stay in contact, he said.

"But we are significantly in better shape organizationally and knowledge-wise than we were even 36 hours ago," he said.

ODF employees were asked Monday to cancel vacations and workers from all parts of the agency are serving on fire lines, in fire camps or in other fire-related jobs.

"We are scaling back all but the most critical functions as we focus on our No. 1 mission, which is fire protection," State Forester Doug Decker said in a news release. "Fire danger and fire behavior indicators are at record levels, with more than two months of fire season left. This is clearly shaping up as a very tough summer."

Half a dozen miles west of Wolf Creek, Chris Hunt, training chief with the Corvallis Fire Department, and several other structural firefighters were poised between the Douglas Complex fire to the north and the roughly 2,000-acre Brimstone fire on the south. The group with its two fire engines was part of the Benton County Task Force.

"The fires are within a couple of miles of us," Hunt said as the thick smoke hung close in the trees. "We are taking a look at all the structures along here to see what it would take to defend them if it does make it this far."

Most residents have been very cooperative and have evacuated, he said.

"There have been a few who have chosen not to leave at this point but most of them have," he said.

About 105 homes have been evacuated with hundreds more residents told to be prepared to evacuate, officials said.

As a firefighter for 25 years, Hunt said it is important for residents to heed the warning of experts when it comes to evacuating.

"There has been a Level 3 evacuation notice given," he said. "What that means is the fire is fairly close. It also means we expect the fire to get closer. We just don't know at this point what the intensity is going to be."

About six miles west of Selma, the Labrador fire is now more than 1,000 acres. It is burning in a portion of the Kalmiopsis Wilderness Area that was burned during the 500,000-acre Biscuit fire of 2002.

At the fire camp set up at North Valley High School in Merlin, local resident Kim Arsenaulz and her daughter, Jessica, dropped by to donate food.

"We want to do whatever we can to help the firefighters," Kim said. "My dad just lost his house last month in the Colorado fire — Colorado Springs."

A sign posted for firefighters at the school gate reads, "Thank you, heroes. Praying for your safety, your health and your families who miss you."

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or email him at The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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