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Klondike fire refuses to die

“It’s just not over until it’s over,” Klondike fire public information officer Kale Casey said of the surprising flareup Sunday on the northwest corner of the 172,287 acre blaze burning toward Agness.

Now, with more than 5,000 acres of new fire growth on the wrong side of primary containment lines, fire crews are scrambling around the clock to construct new lines.

Level 3 “GO” evacuation orders are in effect for 48 homes in the Oak Flats, Spud Road and Agness area, after strong, warm winds whipped the Klondike back to life Sunday. About 60 homes are on level 2 “get ready” status.

“Extreme spotting” propelled fine embers up to six miles ahead of the main fire, dropping the live ash right between firefighters’ tents and close to people’s homes.

“We even had to move our own fire camp,” Casey said.

So just like that: firefighters went from end-of-season repair mode back into full suppression activity. And Agness residents, who thought their summer of worries was almost over, received another jolt of adrenalin as they loaded their cars with their most precious belongings.

With that immediate threat to lives and property, Gov. Kate Brown declared conflagration status on the fire, which brought the Oregon State Fire Marshal’s Office on board and added 250 more firefighters and additional equipment to help the firefighters already assigned to the Klondike’s West Zone regain the upper hand on the blaze.

The fire marshal’s five structural task forces immediately split into day and night shifts to ensure maximum protection for all homes under evacuation. They brought along 20 fire engines, five water tenders and 250 firefighters from 33 different fire agencies from across the state.

This brought firefighter numbers up to 415 personnel, after the additional firefighters joined the Northwest Incident Management Team 7, which assumed command of the Klondike West Zone on Sunday.

There also are five helicopters on the job and five hand crews working the fireline, focused on containing the remaining spot fires both east and west of the Illinois River, near the north fork of Indigo Creek, and west of the 3577 Road.

Casey said the stage was set with “super dry fuels, warm temperatures and relative humidity fallen down into single digits.”

The 30 mph offshore, eastern winds blowing over the fire once again made the northwest corner of the Klondike a tricky challenge.

“The wind was a three-day event,” Casey said, “but thankfully, now, we have a big inversion in place, which should stay all week, and that will help us out.”

Still, firefighters say this Klondike flareup illustrates an important cautionary tale: that big wildfires should never be underestimated until the fall rains take hold of the region. And while fires may seem to go to sleep, “all it takes are the right combinations of weather and fuel conditions” to enable the fire to reclaim center stage, in just a matter of minutes, Casey said.

“That’s why teams stay in place until the end, because every so often an extreme event can occur late in the season,” he said.

The Klondike fire, the largest wildfire in the region in 2018, started by lightning on July 15 and has impacted thousands of residents throughout southwest Oregon. Yet, almost amazingly, even with all the drama and toil, very few structures and no lives have been lost so far.

A community fire meeting on Tuesday at the Curry County Fairgrounds was well attended.

“Everybody recognizes that it’s been a long year,” Casey said, “but also, there’s been strong cooperation with the county, the Coos Forest Protection District, the sheriff’s office, the residents and the firefighters from several jurisdictions.

“The community is supportive, and hopefully, by the weekend, things should be under control, and then, the Curry County sheriff will reassess the evacuation levels,” he added. “Hopefully the inversion stays in place and fire behavior stays low. The sheriff told everybody he knows they all just want to get home.”

Reach Cave Junction freelance writer Annette McGee Rasch at annetterasch@yahoo.com.

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