A cap of cooler air — and to some extent, smoke — that has held wildfires burning northeast of Brookings in place is about to come off, potentially allowing for erratic fire behavior this weekend, fire officials said in a Friday morning briefing.
The relatively cooler temperatures — in the high 90s — have helped crews fighting the Klondike and Taylor Creek fires, which began in a lightning storm July 15. But warmer weather usually brings higher winds, which could whip flames into action again.
In the next 24 hours, fire behavior is expected to increase those winds, and flames are expected across the area. Over the weekend, continued high winds with gusts up to 20 mph are expected Sunday, creating an environment conducive to “active fire behavior,” according to the firefighting inciweb website.
“It’s a big fire,” said fire official Barry Schullenberger. “There’s lots to do. A lot of timber, real nasty country; it has the potential to work its way west.”
The highest priority for firefighters on the front lines of the two fires are protecting the small towns along U.S. 199, including O’Brien, Murphy, Cave Junction, Applegate, Wonder and Selma.
But the second highest priority, said U.S. Forest Service information officer Kale Casey, is keeping the Taylor Creek Fire from crossing Bear Camp Road southeast of Agness.
“That fire started backing on its own to the road,” he said of the 43,000-acre conflagration. “The firefight was on, all (Wednesday) afternoon and into the evening.”
Aviation crews from the Taylor Fire moved southwest to fight the Klondike Fire Wednesday, which had become a “very high” priority, he said.
The two fires are burning within 10 miles north and northwest of the towns along U.S. 199, but the Klondike Fire has progressed north and is 12.5 miles from Agness, according to the Joint Information Center in Josephine County. The western perimeter of the Taylor Fire is 18 miles from Agness.
A fire briefing was slated to be held in that town Friday night. An initial goal was to keep the two fires separate, although aerial maps show a small arm of the northeast branch of the Klondike Fire has reached up into the southwest corner burn scar of the Taylor Fire.
Firefighters closer to Agness and Galice are trying to keep the fire from crossing Bear Camp Road, and plan to use Peavine Road as a fallback control line if it does. Bear Camp Road remains closed in its entirety, from Agness to Grants Pass.
The challenge lately, Casey said, is combatting “rollout,” when a fire races up a steep mountainside, and sends burning material down the other side to ignite other fuel. That fuel, in turn, can burn up the side it just rolled down as well as the hillside opposite it.
“It’s very hard to hold a fire in a valley,” Casey said. “The rollout from above comes right down past the fire line, gets established and tries to run back up again.”
A major risk could be that firefighters get stuck in between.
There was one rollout to Bear Camp Road Wednesday, but firefighters caught it by digging a fire line right up against the flames.
“Anything that tries to pooch out will get tucked right back in,” Casey said.
The Taylor Fire has a tail that reaches out from its western flank that firefighters are “slowly, meticulously, patiently” working to create a burnout area through which it can’t travel, Casey said.
“It takes time,” he said, “but it’s a buffer we need right now.”
Fire officials have said their use of an unmanned drone that can monitor the fire’s creep through the thick smoke has been critical in helping managers determine the next moves.
“We don’t like to have just one plan,” Casey said. “Our primary plan is to stop the fire; our second plan is to understand the fuel types so we know what kind of response we need.”
The drone has a 7-foot wingspan, can operate for eight hours on two gallons of fuel and takes infrared photos that detects heat on the ground.
Officials also noted in the report the Josephine Sheriff’s Office has lifted a closure on the Galice Road along the Upper Rogue River and boat ramps to the popular rafting waterway. Boating from Hog Creek to Galice, however, remains closed.
People planning to go into the newly opened areas are reminded to be aware of fire apparatus working in the area and falling rocks and burning debris, Casey said.
He also reminded people that every resident in Southwest Oregon should be in at a Level 1 evacuation frame of mind — Be Ready — from May to November.
Fuel moistures are hovering at historic lows of 20 percent, and trees at 75 percent of normal, he said.
“Our goal is to protect your homes, your businesses, your communities, the timber values, recreation,” Casey said. “I know a lot of people are concerned about what’s going to happen here. We’re trying to use all the tools in our tool box to keep it low intensity. We don’t want to see extreme fire behavior; we don’t want to see this get up and run. As long as we have the inversion, we should be in good shape.”