Skip to comments.Oregon Firefighters set own blazes in bid to corral wildfires
Posted on 08/01/2002 6:19:24 AM PDT by Grampa Dave
Firefighters set own blazes in bid to corral wildfires
ALEX PULASKI and BETH QUINN
SELMA -- A column of thick smoke reared its head near this Southwest Oregon town at sundown Wednesday, proof that firefighters had begun an important counterattack.
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Bulldozer operators and hand crews had spent two days stitching together a 30-mile line in the dirt, but until Wednesday night, fickle winds had prevented them from setting their own fires to protect Oregon's Illinois Valley.
"The wind has just been too squirrelly," spokesman Tom Valluzzi said.
As incident commander Mike Lohrey explained to residents Tuesday night, the strategy against the approximately 183,000-acre Florence and Sour Biscuit fires is to use controlled burns to seal off the U.S. 199 corridor from the flames.
As winds and temperatures subsided Wednesday night, hillsides west of Selma began to glow with the newly set defensive fires designed to halt the main fire's advance by robbing it of fuel.
Shifting winds had kept daytime crews from setting fires that might turn on them and overrun Selma, which is about 20 miles southwest of Grants Pass, or nearby communities.
The 17,000 residents of the Illinois Valley are under a 30-minute evacuation alert, which means they have been asked to be ready to leave as soon as they are notified, although emergency workers intend to start the evacuation 12 to 24 hours ahead of the fire.
Hoaxers pretending to be civilians deputized by the Josephine County sheriff's department have been knocking on doors telling residents to leave immediately.
Officials said that the evacuation will be broadcast on local radio stations and that officials charged with notifying individual residents will be police officers or firefighters in uniform, driving emergency vehicles.
By today, the Illinois Valley will be sprouting new yellow signs spelling out in black: Escape Route. Oregon Department of Transportation officials plan to make U.S. 199 one way with two lanes heading north, and Oregon State Police and National Guard troops will be stationed at key intersections to allow traffic to enter from side roads. No one will be allowed to return.
The buffer against populated areas on the fire's east is the focus, but fire behavior analyst Erik Christiansen cautioned Wednesday that "the west side and the south side, we just don't have a handle on.
The new elite fire management team slated to take over the west side of the Florence fire near the Rogue River by Sunday could have its hands full.
"There could be some problems in Agness," said Lohrey, who noted that the blaze is burning within five miles of Bear Camp Road. "We've got quite a cushion over there, and we are assessing that today."
Fire officials have already closed the popular backcountry route between Grants Pass and Gold Beach to motor homes and trailers.
"They will close it to all traffic if that threat continues," Lohrey said.
From the air, the most visible fire activity for the past couple of days has been plumes rising about seven miles west of Selma. The fire was not as active Wednesday as it was during the weekend. But a curtain of smoke hangs from there south 25 miles to the California border and beyond, obscuring much of the 180,000-acre Kalmiopsis Wilderness.
"The wilderness is burning," Christiansen said. "We can't fight fire in there. It's too rugged."
Should the Florence fire reach Agness, Biscuit complex blazes will have torched portions of four of the nation's wild and scenic river areas. The Florence fire has already burned sections along the Chetco and Illinois rivers in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness, including both sides of the river at the Illinois' famed white-water rapid, Submarine Hole.
The Sour Biscuit and Florence fires were still thought to be separated by two to three miles Wednesday.
"Every day they say they're going to run together, but there's an old burn there that keeps slowing it down," said John Fowler, planning section chief on the Sour Biscuit fire.
The Sour Biscuit fire has blackened areas along the Smith River in California's Six Rivers National Forest.
Sour Biscuit incident commander Paul Broyles said his crews will be ready to burn out a safety line along their end of the 30-mile "last ditch" bulldozer line when similar work is completed on the Florence fire to the north.
"We'll have one, hopefully, seamless east side," he said.
Fire experts warned that successful backfires alone won't protect threatened homes and communities because conditions still exist for a return of plume-dominated fire that could shoot spot blazes two to three miles ahead.
"Just the fact that we get the line in and black doesn't mean the Illinois Valley is safe," said Greg Gilpin of the Oregon Department of Forestry.
If either fire makes a run toward town, the air attack would include retardant bombers, and helicopters currently dropping water would switch to retardant drops.
"Air tanker support is available to us if we needed to get that in here," he said. "And we have the ability to get retardant into the ships we have."
Structural fire crews continued preparing against the possibility of the fire jumping lines by assessing and mapping homes and clearing away brush and trees from residences.
Ron Brood, 66, watched Wednesday as crews chain-sawed through junipers, muggo pines and ponderosa behind his home southwest of Selma.
"I thought if it was green it wouldn't be a problem," Brood said of trees and brush in his yard.
Nearby, on the eastern edge of Eight Dollar Mountain, bulldozer operator Chad Oilar pushed through foxtail and brush to cut a secondary defense line in case the primary line west of the mountain fails.
There's a special concern in Selma, which stands in the shadow of Eight Dollar Mountain, that the fire could enter the valley there.
"If it's going to come out, I'm predicting it's going to come out there to the valley floor," said Tony Sciacca of the operations team managing the Florence fire.
As of Wednesday morning, the fire was creeping down slopes one to two feet per minute, with 1- to 2-foot flames, but running up slopes at 70 to 80 feet per minute with 8-foot flames, said Christiansen, the fire behavior analyst. The fire was still six miles from the valley communities, but fire managers were wary because earlier this week the fire was moving one mile an hour, covering eight miles on Sunday alone.
Hopefully this will work.
Finding updated news, this morning is lean. Most of the agencies don't put up new data until 10 AM.
Again, all locals are requested to post what they hear on their local radio stations or see.
Praying for all of you up there.
This is a link to yesterday's thread on this fire. People not aware of the scope, and the in harm's way of 17,000 innocents might want to visit this link for some history of this outrage: (Thousands in the Line of Fire in SW Oregon 07/31/2002)
We would request that all replies or comments be placed on this thread to make it easier for us to respond to the replies. This is the thread where it will be happening today.
Thanks for your mega ping John!
This is monstrous - vermin getting people to leave so they can loot their homes! I guess it's a sign of the times, isn't it. Anytime there's a disaster, the scum of the earth finds a way to profit from other people's misery.
Grampa, thank you - you're doing a wonderful job keeping us up to the minute. A lot of people that I work with were born and raised in the beautiful Pacific Northwest (as was Mr. Inspectorette - Camas, WA). They all still have family up there, and the concern is great.
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