Wildfires near Happy Camp gain strength

HAPPY CAMP, Calif. &

With 34 years of fighting wildfires under his belt, Paul Whitcome weighed the challenges posed by the 36,100-acre Siskiyou complex fire on a scale of — to 10.

"Eleven," offered the deputy incident commander who works for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

With that, he listed the problems facing firefighters: triple-digit heat, steep terrain, poison oak, rattlesnakes and limited resources, to name a few.

"And the fire is surprising us," he said.

"It's burning far more aggressively early on. The energy-release components &

a measure of how hot fires burn &

is showing levels that are typically a month later in the summer. It's like mid- to late August out there," he added. "There is a lot of torching and crowning in the trees. And it's throwing long-range spot fires up to a mile ahead of the main fire."

Smoke from the Siskiyou complex and the neighboring 18,500-acre Ukonom complex fires is pouring into the valleys of southwestern Oregon.

Both fires were ignited by dry lightning storms that peppered Northern California in mid-June.

The northern tip of the Siskiyou complex is about a dozen miles southwest of Happy Camp on the west side of the Klamath River, while the northern end of the Ukonom complex is on the east side roughly two dozen miles south of that community and east of the river.

One firefighter, noting the Siskiyou complex is heading south while the Ukonom complex is burning northward, quipped, "The firefighters from each fire could just change camps."

There are about 580 workers and two helicopters assigned to the Siskiyou complex. The Ukonom complex currently has 545 people and three helicopters. However, both fires only have one "heavy" helicopter capable of 1,000-gallon buckets of water from the river to douse flames.

"We are very short on aircraft," Whitcome said, although adding a heavy smoke inversion often makes that a moot point. "The smoke has limited our aircraft operation to almost nothing."

Heavy smoke socked in the Klamath River canyon from at least a dozen miles upstream of Happy Camp down to Orleans on Monday.

"We are spread very, very thin," Whitcome said. "The priorities are in and around the foothills of the Sacramento Valley where there is a threat to homes."

However, he expects more resources to be sent north to the fires in the Klamath National Forest as the fires to the south are contained.

Down at the Ukonom complex fire base at Orleans, Tom Lavagnino, a retired Rogue River National Forest employee and veteran firefighter, said morning inversions have sorely limited visibility and created thick pockets of smoke.

"One issue we have is the choking smoke," he said, adding that the heavy smoke does cool the air. "You don't have the sun to cook the fuels. Of course, the negative side is you can't see the fire to map it and it grounds our aircraft. We fought tooth and nail to get the aircraft only to have them sitting when we have an inversion."

Like Whitcome, he rued the terrain in the area.

"This country redefines rugged," he said of the challenges facing hand crews.

On the Siskiyou complex, the plan is to burn out ahead of the fire, using the Klamath River as a fire line near Ti Bar, a site about two dozen miles south of Happy Camp, said complex spokeswoman Phyllis Swanson, who works for the National Park Service.

"What we are getting ready to do is prepare the lines on the southeast side to do a burn-out operation in the next day or so," she said, referring to a firefighting method in which areas between the fire and fire line are burned to rob the blaze of fuel.

Dillon Campground will be closed temporarily beginning today. There are no river closures, although the usually popular river floating area had few boaters on Monday because of the smoke.

Down on the Klamath River near Ti Bar, Felix Rivera of Berkeley and Les Allen of Erie, Pa., were hunting rocks along the Klamath River.

"I've been coming up here twenty to twenty-five years and this is the first time I've been here in these conditions," Rivera said. "I've got bad allergies. This smoke really bugs me."

The rock hounds should expect more smoke, officials said.

"The only event I can recall of this scale was in 1987," Whitcome said, referring to the summer that brought the nearly 100,000-acre Silver fire to southwestern Oregon and big fires to Northern California.

"Those fires started in late August," he said. "You were on the downhill side of the fire season headed to the wetter period and cooler temperatures.

"This event started close to the beginning of fire season," he added. "We are going into the peak of fire season. Fuels are going to get drier. Temperatures are getting hotter. We have a lot of burning ahead of us."

Officials are hoping to contain the Siskiyou complex by mid-August but they acknowledge that's a tall order.

"It's doable if we get the resources we need and the weather stays in our favor," Whitcome said. "Right now, the winds have slackened off a bit so we can conduct some burn-outs. That's the only way we can attack the fire safely is to drop back away from the head of the fire and build fire lines in a safe, more accessible place for us.

"Some of these fires will burn to the end of the season," he added. "Typically, in this country that's about mid-October when we get enough precipitation to put the fire out."

The story is the same for the Ukonom complex, Lavagnino said.

"Our strategy is to challenge the fire in civilized areas," he said. "But once it gets into the higher elevations where it's greener, we hope it will put itself out. But we'll probably need a season-ending event. It'll likely be Mother Nature putting this one out."

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