A fire retardant bomber drops in front of a fire creeping up a ridge near Humbug Creek road in the Applegate area Sunday evening. - Bob Pennell

Applegate hills blaze challenges fire crews

APPLEGATE — A wildfire, allegedly started by two boys playing with fireworks, burned more than 150 acres Sunday in a brush-filled canyon behind Applegate Elementary School.

"We'll probably be dealing with this all night and into tomorrow," said one firefighter Sunday night.

The fire started between two homes behind Applegate Elementary School at about 2 p.m. Sunday, said Division Chief Brad Barnes of Applegate Fire District 9.

A woman, who asked not to be identified, said the fire was started by "two boys playing with fireworks." She had just visited one of the two homes adjacent to the fire zone, she said. Neither home had been destroyed, she added.

Multiple crews from the Oregon Department of Forestry and District 9 scrambled to stay ahead of the flames as they crept up a ridge near Humbug Creek.

"It's big and steep," said District 9 Firefighter John Roeloff.

Crews were initially forced to rely heavily on air support because of the hilly terrain. Helicopters carrying water buckets dipped into the Applegate River and dropped load after load onto the flames while bombers carrying flame retardant also attacked the steadily burning fire. Trucks of ODF firefighters continued to arrive during the afternoon air drops.

Jackson County sheriff''s deputies shut traffic on Highway 238 just south of the tiny town of Applegate for more than a half-hour while two large tractors were unloaded. The wide-load "cats" were needed to help clear a vegetation break between the fire and homes in the area, said Roeloff.

"We're just trying to get the fire lined around the Humbug side of the fire," said Roeloff.

Horses whinnied and paced in their paddocks as the smell of smoke spread across the Applegate Valley.

About a dozen head of cattle galloped down from the burning hillside to the safety of a grassy pasture near the highway as a low-flying bomber dropped its red load of retardant onto the oak trees and scrub brush near the flames.

The billowing smoke continued to drift upwards, joining puffy white clouds in the hot blue skies as locals packed the parking lot at the little Applegate market. The neighborly crowd appeared calm as they watched the flames spread from a 50-acre brush fire to one three times that size, videotaping the action on their camcorders and cell phone.

"This will be the fifth time my friend's house almost got burned," said one man.

All people, animals and structures appeared to have survived the flames at press time, according to sheriff's deputies.

Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 776-4497 or e-mail

Share This Story