With firefighters already fatigued from 16-hour work days and resources stretched thin, lightning could spark more wildfires Wednesday across Southern Oregon.
“The bad news is we’re expecting more lightning,” National Weather Service meteorologist Ryan Sandler told Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., and wildfire managers during a Tuesday briefing in Merlin.
The community northwest of Grants Pass has been threatened by the 48,247-acre Taylor Creek fire, which has merged with the 55,248-acre Klondike fire that stretches south near the towns of Selma and Cave Junction.
Those fires, along with others in southwest Oregon counties, have kept the Rogue Valley under a pall of smoke since 1,700 lightning strikes hit Southern Oregon July 15.
Although fast-acting fire crews, helicopters and air tankers snuffed out more than 100 blazes, some escaped control to grow into large wildfires.
Some agencies, particularly the U.S. Forest Service, have been criticized for what some call a “let it burn” philosophy.
But Oregon Department of Forestry District Forester Dave Larson said all agencies are now united in the goal to put fires out as quickly as possible when they are still small — while keeping firefighter safety in mind.
Craig Trulock, deputy forest supervisor for the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest, agreed all agencies have adopted that approach.
“We didn’t want a repeat of the smoke from last fire season,” he said.
Larson said firefighters are putting in 16-hour days. During their short periods of time off, they go home, do laundry, then come right back to work.
“The cumulative fatigue is really a big deal,” he said.
Although lightning-sparked wildfires have been burning for a month, the fire season is not close to being over, said Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest Public Affairs Officer Virginia Gibbons.
Sandler said wildfire risk will continue through September.
In the past 15 to 20 years, Southern Oregon has seen a warming trend and is experiencing drier summers, he said.
The next few months will be hotter and drier than usual, Sandler said.
“We think the fire season’s going to go a lot longer than it usually does,” he said.
Sandler said it’s too soon to say whether smoke-filled summers are the new normal.
“I hope it’s not the new normal. It’s not enough years to say this is a definite trend, but we have seen a lot more smoke in the last five or six years than we saw in the early 2000s,” he said.
Debate continues about whether recent wildfires have been fueled by global warming, logging cutbacks, not enough thinning of brush and small trees, a century of aggressive wildfire suppression contributing to overgrown forests — or a mix of all those factors.
Jackson County Sheriff Nathan Sickler and Josephine County Sheriff Dave Daniel had a unified message for Merkley.
They said logging cutbacks on federal lands have helped create overgrown forests that are now going up in smoke.
“This needs to be a priority for Oregonians and especially Southern Oregonians because we’re bearing the brunt of this poor forest management,” Sickler said.
Increased logging could infuse local economies with timber revenue, he said.
Jackson County and especially Josephine County have been hard hit by logging cutbacks. The counties once received millions of dollars every year in shared revenue from logging on federal land — money that helped support law enforcement, roads, libraries and more.
Sickler said the smoke is hurting local businesses and having a negative economic impact on Southern Oregon.
But the biggest impact is on the people who have to evacuate or be ready to evacuate because wildfires are threatening their homes, he said.
Evacuations and evacuation warnings have strained the sheriffs’ departments in both counties as they mobilize to warn residents and man roadblocks, Sickler and Daniels said.
Aiding on the wildfires has cut into their departments’ regular law enforcement duties, Sickler said.
The strain from wildfires is also impacting the Medford Police Department, the Ashland Police Department, Oregon State Police and other law enforcement agencies as they lend a hand, Sickler said.
Josephine County Commissioner Lily Morgan said the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management need to keep forest roads open. Those roads are used to fight wildfires and also serve as firebreaks to hold the line against advancing fires.
Morgan said the Medford Air Tanker Base also must remain open.
Aircraft flying out from the Medford base at the Rogue Valley International-Medford Airport have dropped more than 1 million gallons of retardant so far this year, according to officials.
The Forest Service is studying whether to keep air tanker bases in Medford and Klamath Falls operating, or shut one down.
A National Air Tanker Base study completed in 1996 said keeping the Klamath Falls base was the best choice, but Jackson County officials fought back to keep the Medford base operating.
Morgan said this summer’s wildfires have destroyed millions of board feet of timber on Josephine County-owned forestland.
Forest Service officials said trees they had sold for logging have burned up, and Oregon Department of Forestry officials said private timberlands have burned, as well.
As for the biggest fires in Southern Oregon, the Taylor Creek and Klondike fires in Josephine County are so big they would have burned an area stretching from Grants Pass to Medford if they were laid out east to west.
Norm McDonald of the Alaska Interagency Incident Team said crews are working to contain the Taylor Creek fire and save Merlin-area homes and buildings.
“We’ve been aggressive in there both day and night,” he said.
Crews have done burn-outs to remove fuels in the path of the Klondike fire in order to protect Selma and Cave Junction, McDonald said.
They also hope to use burn scars from the 2017 Chetco Bar fire to hold the line against the Klondike fire, he said.
The Chetco Bar fire charred 191,125 acres and wasn’t declared 100 percent contained until November 2017, according to the Incident Information System that tracks the status of wildfires.
The so-called Chetco winds, which blow from east to west, are expected to pick up soon and could push the Klondike fire toward the coast, McDonald said.
The Klondike fire is burning in the steep, rugged Kalmiopsis Wilderness Area, site of the Chetco Bar fire as well as the 2002 Biscuit fire, which burned nearly 500,000 acres.