In battling wildfires, it’s often about the wind — or lack thereof. The weather inversion that kept a lid on the Klondike fire burning northwest of Selma for days helped limit its spread — but meteorologists say that “cap is coming off.”
“It’s a critical fire day,” Public Information Officer Kale Casey said this morning. “The winds could gust up to 20 miles an hour. There could be a lot of fire activity.”
Fire managers hope the heavy smoke that grounded choppers will clear enough to allow air operations to ramp up, though some new technology — a sophisticated drone capable of flying through the smoke — has been on the job detecting “hot spots” outside current fire containment lines.
“The Scan Eagle Drone is always flying,” Casey said.
The Klondike and another fire burning in the Siskiyou National Forest — Taylor Creek — are now managed together, and at this morning’s briefing, Incident Commander Rob Allen said operations are “finishing up on the Taylor fire” and focus is “shifting to the southern end of Klondike.”
The 35,000-acre Klondike fire, currently 15 percent contained, grew about 2,000 acres in the last 24 hours. There are about 600 firefighters assigned to the blaze, with more help coming in. Even with large fires burning across the nation, Casey noted that “we are a priority fire.”
About a dozen middle-management firefighters from Australia and New Zealand are now filling some critical positions. And as the scramble is on to prepare key fire lines before the wind kicks up, two new hot shot crews are working to stabilize the southeast corner of the Klondike fire before they move on to conduct protective burnout operations along the Illinois River Road where residences are threatened.
Currently, the Taylor Creek and the Klondike fires are separated by about 5 miles of rough terrain.
“We hope firefighters can keep the two blazes separated to protect all the values at risk in the area,” PIO Andy Lyon said. There’s a lot of campgrounds, private lands and timberlands.”
On the Klondike fire’s eastern edge, a firebreak along Forest Service Road 25 is in place to protect the communities of Selma, Wonder, Wilderville, Williams, Applegate, Cave Junction and O’Brien.
Running roughly parallel to Highway 199, Casey said that fire line now connects the Taylor Creek and the Klondike fires and has at least “1,000 feet of depth on the lower south end near Selma.” Thus focus has shifted to swinging the fire line around to the south and will move west for an eventual link-up with last year’s Checto Bar fire scar.
To the north, fire managers have a worried eye trained on spots where the Klondike fire is chewing into fine fuels that grew up in the wake of the 16-year-old Biscuit fire.
“There’s dead trees that have been standing for 16 years and putting people in that snag patch is not something anybody relishes,” said Lyon, adding that efforts to determine where “we might be able to put line or reopen bulldozer lines from the Biscuit and Checto fires are ongoing. We have very few people to put up in the northwest corner, but we hope to fly aircraft over that area over the next few days.”
To the west, the situation is better as the Klondike fire encounters the more recent Checto Bar fire scar. Serpentine geography in the region also helps contain the fire.
“My sense of security changes from day to day,” said Tina Wright, who lives near Selma, about a mile from the Klondike fire.
A fire crew installed a “pumpkin” at Wright’s house, which is a collapsible bladder that holds 3,000 gallons of water. They also placed hoses and sprinklers around the property.
Wright said she’s “impressed by the firefighters” but that she’ll become more nervous as the wind picks up.
“Even though I was told that I have very good fire defensibility because I mow, remove tall weeds and limb up, still, I realize that I’ve not done enough,” she said. “I need to do more.”
Illinois Valley Fire District Fire Chief Dennis Hoke also wants people to do more — and in some cases, a lot more.
Hoke remembers the 1996 Miller’s Reach wildfire in Alaska, where “whole subdivisions were burned because so much was indefensible,” Hoke said. “We had to focus on saving homes that were prepped — where we could actually make a stand.”
Hoke said there’s too many driveways “where I cannot even get a fire truck in because there’s so much brush, or, people refuse to even put a sign up to tell us where they’re at. I get it — they want to live in the woods and not be bothered by anybody — but in an emergency, they’re on their own.
“I’m always going to put our resources where they can do the greatest good — and that’s where people have done some work to help themselves,” he said. “I’m not going to risk my firefighters’ lives trying to protect something that’s not protectable.”
A level 3 “go” evacuation remains in effect for Oak Flat at the end of the Illinois River Road. From milepost 2.5 to Oak Flat, a level 2 “get ready” alert is in place; and a level 1 “be ready” notice has been issued for the residences west of Highway 199 between its intersection with Lakeshore Drive north to Waters Creek Road.
Interactive map of current evacuation levels is available at http://bit.ly/joco-evac. Get emergency alerts at www.rvem.org.
Reach freelance writer Annette McGee Rasch at email@example.com.