Two of the biggest fires in history to strike Southern Oregon — the Biscuit and Chetco Bar — are both hindering and helping efforts to snuff out the Klondike fire in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness.
“They are using some of the old lines from the Chetco as well as the Biscuit fire,” said Katy O’Hara, public information officer for the Klondike and Natchez fires.
The Klondike fire is burning within the boundaries of the 500,000-acre 2002 Biscuit fire and on the edge of the Chetco Bar fire, a 192,000-acre conflagration that rocked the region last year. The area was also the site of the 150,000-acre Silver fire in 1987, which like the others was ignited by lightning.
In the years since the Biscuit fire, light vegetation that is extremely flammable has sprouted, providing abundant fuel for the Klondike, which doubled in size last week to its current 15,915 acres.
“The fuels are at a critical point in their ability to burn,” O’Hara said.
Because of the rugged terrain, firefighters anticipate it will require a significant rain to extinguish the blaze, she said. The Klondike fire is burning about 10 miles northwest of Selma and was only 5 percent contained as of Monday.
“I would say this is going to be a long-duration event,” she said.
Fire officials don’t have any idea how much bigger the Klondike will get, with firefighters battling a half-dozen major blazes in Southern Oregon. The Klondike is burning about 15 miles southwest of the 25,000-acre Taylor Creek fire and about 30 miles north of the 5,300-acre Natchez fire. All of the area fires were started by a July 15 lightning storm.
O’Hara said that in the early days after the Klondike fire ignited fire officials attempted to use aircraft to quell the flames, but the terrain and weather worked against them.
Sending in firefighters to directly battle flare-ups is also not generally an option, because it would put them at risk.
“We have to be aware of ingress and egress routes,” O’Hara said. “We need to determine how quickly they can get in or out of a place if things get bad.”
The lives of local residents and firefighters are the top priority in putting out a wildfire.
Weather in the Kalmiopsis can be fickle, with erratic winds that shift directions, potentially trapping firefighters. Visibility is also a factor in battling the blaze, often limiting the amount of air support that can be called in.
On Sunday, heavy smoke limited aerial surveillance of the Klondike fire, making it difficult to determine where the fire was the most active.
Crews are busy working on previously constructed fire lines for the Biscuit fire and are working to suppress any advances toward the Illinois River.
A Level 3 “Go” evacuation for Oak Flat at the end of Illinois River Road remained in effect Monday, affecting 13 residences.
Meteorologist Charles Smith of the National Weather Service in Medford said much of the smoke pouring into the valley is coming from the Garner Complex burning to the southeast of the Klondike, but also from the South Umpqua Complex to the north.
The Klondike fire is pumping smoke into the Illinois Valley, including Lake Selmac, where a fire camp is located.
Cooler weather is expected over the next week, with temperatures in the high 80s to low 90s.
“I expect an improvement, but I wouldn’t expect good air quality,” Smith said.
A change in weather patterns may usher in more bad air from the Klondike, Smith said.
Next Tuesday there’s a slight chance of rain from a low pressure front headed toward the valley. But, Smith said, it’s unusual to see a low-pressure system like this actually make it into the valley at this time of year.
“I’ve seen these go farther north than the modeling actually predicts,” he said.
Even if we get rainfall, Smith said it’s likely to be a small amount, and not enough to quench the fires.
“It’s too far out to really nail it down,” he said.
Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on www.twitter.com/reporterdm.