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Crews Battle More Blazes in the Northwest

July 31, 2013

By The Oregonian

Nine wildfires are raging in the Northwest, mainly in Oregon, forcing evacuations, closing roads and campgrounds and stretching resources thin.

The National Interagency Fire Center in Boise has made the Northwest a priority, thrusting it to the top of 11 geographic regions. That`s means that when crews and equipment become available, the Northwest gets first dibs.

"We have ordered 15 crews," said Carol Connolly, spokesman for the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center in Portland. "They`re coming in in waves."

They`ll be needed. Forecasters are warning of an extreme fire threat through parts of central and eastern Oregon on Wednesday and Thursday with thunderstorms expected to pummel the region. The weeks ahead could be bad as well.

"Oregon and Washington are entering the most serious part of fire season," said Don Smurthwaite, spokesman for the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise. "The potential is high in both states."

The biggest concern Tuesday in Oregon is the Douglas complex of fires west of Glendale, prompting Gov. John Kitzhaber to declare a state of emergency for Josephine and Douglas counties. Ignited by lightning strikes on Friday, the complex covers more than 21,000 acres and includes three areas:Milo on the east side of Interstate 5; Rabbit Mountain on the west side of I-5 and northwest of Glendale; and Dad`s Creek west of Glendale.

The fires are active on the east side of I-5, according to the state fire marshal. With nearly 1,300 firefighters and other staff battling the blazes, crews are grappling with various hazards, such as falling boulders and trees and old mine shafts, which are hampering access into some areas.

Connolly said firefighters have made progress against the Dad`s Creek fire, but she said the Rabbit Mountain fire to the northwest remains a challenge.

No structures have been destroyed but 400 homes are under some sort of evacuation alert, with more than 40 households asked to leave.

The fires are 5 percent contained.

The next large group of wildfires in Oregon is burning east of Tiller. The so-called Whiskey complex, also sparked by the lightning storms on Friday, covers more than 2,500 acres and includes four fires.

With nearly 800 firefighters and support staff battling the blazes, crews have dug containment lines around most of the fires and established anchor points from which to build new lines.

The Ash Valley subdivision, including eight households, was put under an immediate evacuation notice on Monday as crews faced runs of flames, Connolly said.

The fires are 5 percent contained.

Northwest of Cave Junction, the Labrador fire has spread to nearly 1,400 acres, with more than 400 firefighters and support staff on site.

Connolly said the fire raced south over the past 24 hours, with smoke making air support impossible.

Crews have protected structures in the Oak Flat subdivision, with residents of 12 homes asked to prepare to leave.

The fire is zero percent contained.

Northwest of Merlin, the Big Windy complex has scorched more than 2,100 acres. Crews are battling four separate fires that are raging through old growth forest of conifers.

"It`s very rugged, very steep terrain," Connolly said.

The biggest problem with these fires, also sparked by Friday`s lighting rounds, is that crews need to establish escape routes and set up safety zones before sending in an army of resources, Connolly said. So far, 70 firefighters are assigned to the area, with more personnel ordered.

And then southwest of Merlin, the Brimstone fire has charred 1,400 acres and is zero percent contained. About 750 firefighters and other staff are assigned to the area, with the fire zero percent contained. This fire, too, was ignited Friday by lightning.

The biggest fire far so far this season in Oregon was not sparked by lightning. And it did not scorch timberland. The Sunnyside Turnout fire, now 100 percent contained, burned more than 51,000 acres of rangeland outside Warm Springs

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Copyright Oregonian, Portland, OR, 2013

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