Smoke columns shooting upward thousands of feet on Friday afternoon signaled the return of active fire behavior on the Klondike — which is burning four miles northwest of Selma.
“Holy wow, this thing’s really come alive,” said Selma resident Karen Smithers, as she tossed groceries into the back of her truck while staring at the column. Clearly unnerved, she added, “Maybe we’ll be evacuating after all.”
“It is pretty impressive,” said Public Information Officer Andy Lyon, “that column is getting wider by the minute. But it’s moving with the wind towards our control lines, so that’s good. Over the next day or two, we’ll find out if the fire lines will hold after there’s been a little wind on them.”
In a morning briefing, Deputy Incident Commander Rob Allen warned firefighters who’d only experienced the Klondike fire under sluggish smoky conditions that with clear skies and wind, “this fire can make some pretty good moves in this country when it gets lined up in some of those drainages.”
To tame wildfires wisely, it’s about applying strategy that works with wind and nature. So fire managers “looking out for opportunities” dropped some small incendiary devices called “ping pong” balls from the air — to start new fires.
These devices, which ignite a few minutes after landing, hit between the active fire and the homes sandwiched between steep slopes and the Illinois River Road. Then the winds went to work, pushing the fire uphill, “back into itself,” Lyon explained.
“So we have new fire meeting up with existing fire, and that widens the fire lines and the homes are made more safe,” he said. “We want to consume fuels between the advancing wildfire and our line along the road so that we have a big black buffer to protect the Illinois Valley.”
Lyon added that additional bulldozer and burnout operations are also “strengthening and adding depth” to the Klondike’s eastern fire line along Forest Road 25 (roughly parallel to highway 199) which is protecting the communities of Selma, Wonder, Wilderville, Williams, Murphy and the Applegate — as well as Cave Junction and O’Brien.
This eastern line connects the Klondike fire to the Taylor Creek fire and firefighters are also working hard to prevent these fires from merging. Roughly five miles currently separates the two large blazes.
There’s a tricky spot in the Klondike fire’s extreme southeast corner, again, just four miles from Selma, where “natural fire” burned westward yesterday, thankfully, into an area that had been slated to be burned out anyway.
Nearby, two hot shot fire crews had planned some burnout operations to turn the corner, but the operation was postponed.
“Getting the fire to bend gracefully around that corner is critically important, as homes are nestled below that slope that’s slated for the burnout between the fire and Illinois River Road,” said communications officer Kale Casey. “We also held off yesterday due to weather concerns. That’s a careful process, we don’t rush, we look at the winds ... they’ll turn that corner when the time is right and they can do that safely.”
But right now, with smoke columns kicking up in the area, Selma and Illinois Valley residents wish the fire and containment lines were complete.
“We all sleep with one eye open these days,” Smithers said.
The eventual goal on the south end of the Klondike fire is to extend the fireline west until it connects to the Chetco Bar fire scar, which should serve as an effective natural fire break.
The Klondike fire is now up to 38,382 acres and remains at 15 percent containment. Evacuation levels are unchanged at this time.