Region's fires still growing, despite air attack, officials say

The five largest fires burning in southwest Oregon have exploded to an estimated 30,000 acres as firefighters concentrated on an aerial attack before moving in with a large ground assault.

"We're not able to engage the fires on the perimeters in very many places," said Don Ferguson, a firefighter in his 44th fire season. "Perimeter control is at a premium.

"We are flying a lot of retardant and dropping a lot of water," he added. "The retardant and water slows it down and gives you some tactical options."

However, because the forests are bone dry, the fires are explosive, creating deadly threats to firefighters on the ground, said Ferguson.

"The fire behavior is the issue," he said. "The terrain, slope and fuels: they are all lined up. And when you look at the probability of ignition — that means when you have 10 sparks, how many will start a fire — we are pretty close to 100 percent now."

The blanket of smoke from the fires has also made it difficult to keep firefighters safe, he said.

"We have fires we can't find — we can't see them for the smoke," he said.

However, the firefighters have met their primary objective, which is to preserve life and protect property, he said, noting there have been no houses lost, no major injuries.

"But none of the fires are slowing down," he said. "They are certain to be bigger today."

The largest of the estimated 75 fires triggered by dry lightning on Friday is the Douglas Complex fire, which is more than 21,000 acres, officials said. About 105 homes have been evacuated with hundreds of additional residents told to be prepared to evacuate.

Some 400 firefighters have been assigned to the blaze while air tankers and helicopters attacked from the air.

About six miles west of Selma, the Labrador fire has grown to slightly more than 1,000 acres. It is burning in a portion of the Kalmiopsis Wilderness Area which was burned during the 500,000-acre Biscuit fire of 2002.

The Big Windy complex northwest of Merlin has grown to 2,117 acres, fire officials report.

The Whiskey complex outside Tiller is now 2,400 acres.

— Paul Fattig

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