Wildfire raises spectre of 2002 blaze

As smoke rose Saturday above the forests near Selma — fouling the air above the Illinois River and the Kalmiopsis Wilderness Area in Josephine County — another cloud was forming in the minds of fire officials as they set up firefighting operations at Selmac Lake to fight the growing Labrador fire.

While this fire, one of about 75 burning across Southern Oregon, was estimated only to be about 300 acres as of Saturday afternoon, fire officials were uttering the dreaded phrase "Biscuit fire," referring to the largest fire in Oregon history, the 2002 conflagration that burned nearly a half-million acres.

The Labrador fire is burning in the same area scorched by the Biscuit, and conditions on the ground are eerily similar to those that set the stage in 2002, said Virginia Gibbons, with the Rogue River Siskiyou National Forest.

"The conditions are very similar to what we had in 2002 with the Biscuit fire, and there's lots of potential for explosive fire growth," said Gibbons.

The fire is burning in steep terrain where standing snags left over from the Biscuit fire tower over highly flammable, 20-foot high brush that has filled in since 2002. As the snags catch fire, they fall and roll and the fire jumps, creating hazardous conditions for those trying to get a handle on the fire.

"It is very dangerous firefighting conditions," Gibbons said. "It is very concerning to us."

The Labrador fire is centered south of the Illinois River and downstream of Oak Flat, approximately one mile southwest of Briggs Creek Campground and within a mile east of the Kalmiopsis Wilderness.

It may even be burning in the Kalmiopsis. Because firefighting efforts are still in the very early stages, mapping information was not yet available Saturday afternoon. Even the 300-acre estimate on the fire's size was tentative, Gibbons stressed.

A Type 2 interagency fire incident team took over management of the fire Saturday morning and held its first briefing at noon. A second briefing was scheduled for 6 p.m.

Private land inholdings in the Oak Flat area are at risk, and fire officials are in contact with local residents, said Gibbons, adding that fire officials are coordinating with the Josephine County Sheriff's Department "so we have a plan in place in case we have to do evacuations."

The American Red Cross established an emergency shelter at the Glendale Elementary School, the agency said in a news release. Anyone seeking assistance from the Red Cross can call 1-888-680-1455.

The Labrador fire is just one of perhaps as many as 75 fires that were burning across Southern Oregon Saturday.

The Douglas Complex was the largest, having burned approximately 10,000 acres by Saturday afternoon and forcing evacuations near the town of Glendale, according to Kyle Reed, spokesman for the Douglas Forest Protective Association out of Roseburg.

"The fire is big, really intense, really hot, It's a very active fire right now," Reed said.

Most of the roughly 54 Douglas County fires were burning in the Cow Creek drainage west of Glendale, but several were burning in the Milo area east of Canyonville, Reed said.

The Douglas County Sheriff's Department began evacuating houses in the Glendale area about 4:30 p.m.

"Douglas County Sheriff's Office is evacuating all homes west of McCullough Creek Road to Reuben," Reed said. "Residents east of McCullough Creek Road to the mill west of Glendale are being asked to prepare for potential evacuation. This means residents are warned that should conditions worsen, they also will be asked to evacuate."

In Josephine County, approximately 11 crews, 40 engines and 325 firefighters were battling yet another complex of 24 fires, said Brian Ballou, spokesman for the Oregon Department of Forestry's Southwest Oregon District, which includes Jackson and Josephine counties.

The largest were the Brimstone fire about five miles southwest of Sunny Valley, and the Farmer Gulch fire, which was burning about a mile and a half away, west of Wolf Creek.

By Saturday afternoon, strong winds were fanning flames and the fires were spreading rapidly.

"Both fires have been very active in the last two hours, and it sounds like all of the fire areas were getting very strong winds. Both of the fires have grown in size," Ballou said.

Estimates on the size of the fires were not immediately available, and planes were having a hard time getting a visual because of the intense smoke, Ballou said.

"It's hard to get aircraft through the smoke right now to get a view of things," Ballou said, adding that homes to the south of the fire area could be threatened if conditions worsen.

"Part of our concern is that part of the Douglas Complex is getting close to the east end of the Wolf Creek area," he said.

The Josephine County Sheriff's Department is prepared to lead evacuation efforts if they become necessary. Sheriff's deputies there maintained a roadblock at Lake Selmac throughout the day. Road and trail closures along the Illinois River Road are expected to be implemented soon.

As Ballou raced from the Brimstone fire to the Farmer Gulch fire late Saturday afternoon to assess the situation, the Labrador fire was still spreading on all flanks, and firefighters there were preparing for what may turn out to be a long haul.

"We've ordered a lot of crews, engines and aircraft to fight the fire," said Paul Galloway, spokesman for the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest. "It's burning in a really inaccessible area. It'll be a tough go, I think."

Reach Mail Tribune features editor David Smigelski at 541-776-8784 or dsmigelski@mailtribune.com.

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