5 largest fires have grown to more than 35,000 acres

With the five largest fires burning in Douglas and Josephine counties having grown to more than 35,000 acres, southwestern Oregon now has the dubious distinction of being the nation's wildfire hot spot.

More than 3,500 firefighters from throughout Oregon and around the nation have been deployed to battle the growing blazes, fire officials said.

"We are not short of resources," said Don Ferguson, spokesman for the command center organizing the fire fight.

But they are still looking for a little help from Mother Nature, he said. The fact the wind picked up late Wednesday afternoon could help the firefighters on the fire lines, providing it helps clear the air while not fanning the flames, he said.

"It will help clear out some of the smoke — what we really need is to be able to see what we are doing," said Ferguson. "Folks are waiting to get good visuals before sending people in there."

As of late Wednesday, no homes had been burned and no major injuries reported.

"That means we are winning," he said.

The prognosis for containment is better on the fires where there is road access, he said.

"When the humidity comes up a little, then we will have road access to go direct," he said, adding that would allow firefighters to put fire lines close to those fires. "Those are the ones we will be able to put away first."

However, there are no roads near the remote Labrador and Big Windy Complex fires, which will make those a particular challenge, he said.

"On those, we will have to build lines a long way away from the fire and do a lot of burning out," he said, referring to the practice of burning the fuel between the main fire and the fire lines.

The Labrador fire, situated a half-dozen air miles west of Selma, has grown to about 1,750 acres and continues to burn into the Kalmiopsis Wilderness in the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest. There are 425 firefighters on that blaze, which is not contained by any fire lines.

The Big Windy Complex fire, about 25 miles northwest of Grants Pass in the lower Rogue River drainage, has grown to slightly more than 2,900 acres. Some 200 firefighters are working that complex, which consists of three separate fires.

Bear Camp Road is closed, as are trails through the area. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management has closed the wild section of the lower Rogue to river floaters because the smoke inhibits any aerial river rescues should one be needed.

The largest of the estimated 75 fires sparked by Friday's dry lightning storm remains the Douglas Complex fire, now at 25,400 acres, said Caitlin Goins of the Oregon Department of Forestry.

There are nearly 1,400 firefighters assigned to the fire that's about seven miles north of Glendale. That fire is 5 percent contained.

More than 100 homes have been evacuated and a pre-evacuation notice issued to more than 40 other residences, she said. Lower Cow Creek Road, Union Creek Road, West Fork Road and Lower Grave Creek Road are all closed.

Oregon Army National Guard air and ground resources are being deployed to the area, she said.

The ground-pounding firefighters are being assisted by air tankers and bucket-carrying helicopters when there is a rare break in the thick shroud of smoke blanketing the region.

"Unfortunately, we can't get a lot of aircraft up because of the smoke," she said.

But the smoke that is giving a headache to those planning aerial attacks on the fires is helping dampen aggressive fire behavior, she said.

"It helps fire suppression," she said. "It does sock us in but it makes firefighting on the ground easier."

Progress is being made on the 90-acre Farmers Gulch fire near Wolf Creek, she noted.

"Pretty much all the single tree hits have been mopped up," she said of lightning-caused fires on ODF-protected land in the region.

Firefighters have also made some headway on the 2,000-acre Brimstone fire about 10 miles northwest of Merlin, she said, noting that fire is about 10 percent contained. About 800 firefighters have been sent to that blaze.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or email him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.

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