With wildfires raging across the West and firefighting resources maxed out, there is no cavalry to ride in and save Cave Junction and Brookings on the two sides of the massive Chetco Bar fire.
"We're not going to get more help. We're going to have to do this with the people we have now," Noel Livingston, one of the incident commanders on the Chetco Bar fire, told hundreds of anxious Cave Junction area residents crammed into the Illinois Valley High School for a Sunday night briefing.
Livingston said about 1,600 people are working on the fire. Resources were concentrated on the western side of the fire after it made a run toward Brookings on the coast, gobbling up thousands of acres through heavy timber in August. But the fire is gaining ground on its eastern side, too, reaching to within 10 miles of Selma and Highway 199. Because of heavy smoke, crews couldn't fly Saturday to gather infrared imagery of the fire, but it's believed to be at least 150,000 acres.
"It's going to move in this direction, no doubt about it," Livingston said.
Over the weekend, the fire gobbled up new acreage on its Cave Junction side, sending a smoke column 20,000 feet in the air, he said.
Ashes rained down at least as far as Grants Pass.
Firefighters and equipment are being repositioned to strengthen old fire lines put in near Cave Junction in the battle against the 2002 Biscuit fire, which burned nearly 500,000 acres, Livingston said.
Those old fire lines range from 2 to 4 miles from Highway 199 and the communities along the highway, including Cave Junction, Livingston said.
The Chetco Bar fire is bringing up memories of the Biscuit fire, which also spread out of the Kalmiopsis Wilderness Area.
As it grows toward Cave Junction, the Chetco Bar fire is burning through brush fields and snags left behind by the earlier blaze.
The Chetco Bar fire is not likely to spot a mile ahead as it did in the heavy timber outside Brookings, but it will burn hotter in the brush fields, Livingston said.
With dryness exceeding record levels, the Biscuit fire scar is not acting like a massive fire break to the Chetco Bar fire. Virtually everything is on fire inside the scar except rocks, he said.
Fire crews are working to build containment lines on all sides of the Chetco Bar fire.
"We're going to have to build a box all around this thing," Livingston said.
However, crews will need help from Mother Nature in terms of lower temperatures and rain to eventually bring the fire under control, said Oregon Department of Forestry Southwest Oregon District Forester Dave Larson.
During the Biscuit fire, 6,000 to 8,000 people worked the fire. Other significant wildfires wrapped up around the nation, allowing firefighters to redeploy and join the effort. But blazes in Oregon, Washington, California and the Rocky Mountain states have stretched this year's forces thin, meaning no significant help is on the way, Livingston said.
The Oregon National Guard has been activated, but Livingston said those soldiers aren't adequately trained in firefighting to be sent into the wilderness. They could be hurt or killed there.
Livingston said the top priority is saving lives, followed by protecting communities and then preserving natural resources.
The Oak Flats area west of Highway 199 remained under a Level 1 evacuation alert Sunday, meaning residents should make preparations to evacuate.
Under a Level 2 alert, residents should be ready to leave at a moment's notice. Residents must leave immediately under a Level 3 evacuation order.
The Josephine County Sheriff's Office is urging all area residents to prepare ahead of time, especially if they have people with special needs in their households or large animals that would have to be moved in an evacuation.
To sign up for emergency cellphone text and email alerts from Josephine County through the reverse 911 system, visit tinyurl.com/Josephine-County-Citizen-Alert.
Meanwhile, the Miller Complex in the Applegate Valley and California and the High Cascades Complex, which includes fires near Crater Lake and Union Creek, are themselves burning up thousands of acres.
"There is a risk of all firefighting resources being exhausted," said Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest Deputy Forest Supervisor Craig Trulock.