Conditions improve for fight on north end fire

“We’re preparing now and so should you,” Warner said. “We have this favorable weather window in these coming days, but that may not last.”

Dean Warner, fire behavior analyst

With a change of wind direction expected to bring improvement in the hazardous smoke conditions that have plagued the Illinois Valley for days on end, firefighters are stoked about finally gaining better access to the north end of the Smith River Complex.
That was one message gladly received by more than 150 people who braved the smoke to attend a fire information meeting held Monday night at the Illinois Valley High School, despite the option of viewing the proceedings online.
It all started Aug. 15, after a dozen lightning strikes landed in and around Gasquet, California. By August 28 the Smith River Complex – comprising more than 10 fires – was estimated to be 71,225 acres in size, with 7% containment.
Initially, over 100 lightning strikes-per-day hammered down upon the landscape, causing Gasquet residents to flee their homes. Then, with southwest winds pushing the north end of the complex for several days, the fire crossed state lines to threaten the communities of Takilma and O’Brien. Fire officials said their “top priority” to protect these locations in the coming days will continue, as they also mount quick responses to any new fire starts. Their other top objective is to get Highway 199 reopened to the coast.
With dry fuels and high winds the fire has exhibited ‘spotting’ behavior (wind-tossed embers starting new fires). In fact, citing “full transparency,” John Spencer, field operations section chief with Northwest Incident Management Team 13, disclosed that an hour prior he’d received word that hot shot crews had begun to battle a new fire start caused by spotting a mile ahead of the fire line. People groaned. Then, about 30 minutes later, the crowd cheered when an announcement was made that this new fire start had been successfully extinguished. It was a nice moment.
“It doesn’t need much wind to drive the fire and we have very receptive fuel beds that will take one little glowing ember and start a fire,” said Dean Warner, fire behavior analyst with Team 13.
Jonathan Chriest, incident meteorologist for Team 13, said “an upper level low pressure trough is moving into the area and this will stir things up, which will mean less smoke.” He explained how the inversion that has trapped the smoke in the valley will begin to lift, bringing much needed relief to both people and animals. Wind direction will shift, from the southwest to come out of the north. Relative humidity levels will creep back up as temperatures drop and there are chances for showers later in the week – all good news for the fire fight!
Warner added that with better weather conditions and less smoke that firefighters – with more comfort and predictability – will be able to make better preparations to complete firelines in key spots.
“We’re preparing now and so should you,” Warner said. “We have this favorable weather window in these coming days, but that may not last.” (pull quote)
Thus it’s critically important that people don’t become complacent about the fire or underestimate the potential danger that it poses. Several officials stressed that preparations for a smooth evacuation should continue. Also, people should continue to move flammables away from their homes.
“We only have the resources that we have,” said Josephine County Emergency Manager Michael Sellers, noting that additional fires in the region could pull these resources away, and “with this huge degree of unpredictability, things can change for the worse very quickly.”
A few meeting attendees brought up concerns about potential evacuations causing major chaos on Highway 199 if everyone tries to leave at the same time.
Illinois Valley Fire District Chief John Holmes responded that this is why people need to heed the call when told it’s time to evacuate. “When we evacuate an area, we don’t do it all at once. We evacuate sections one at a time and there will be law enforcement officers stationed in key positions to help this go smoothly. I have no expectation of chaos.”
Holmes also wants people to remain aware that “living in this region means you’re on level 1 all summer long. Collect all your valuables, medications and documents. Put all your photos on a thumb drive. Be ready, so all you have to do is grab your loved ones and pets and go.” He also advised that people write down serial numbers of key electronics and appliances and take pictures of high value items for insurance purposes.
“Firefighters are working hard,” Spencer said. “The weather has pushed us all week, spotting the fire has pushed us, we’ve had to meet those challenges. There’s six hot shot crews holding the fire lines… catching fire in case it jumps.” Spencer, along with everyone who works on fires in this region, relates how the Smith River Wilderness is full of huge obstacles to overcome.
“The steeper the hills, the faster the fire,” said Warner, referring to how much of the terrain is nearly straight up and down. And it’s not just the unforgiving terrain. Toss in hot and dry conditions with gusting afternoon winds along with lousy visibility from heavy smoke and you’ve got some of the most dangerous and difficult firefighting conditions found anywhere in the nation.
The compromised air quality of the past week kept most air support for firefighters on the ground. Still, the 1,000 plus firefighters assigned to the complex have made progress in containment of multiple fires. Detailed reports on their work are available online, just Google Smith River Complex North.
“We needed resources to get here and they did,” Holmes noted. “Our working relationships are stronger than they’ve ever been. We couldn’t do what we do without that. Holmes acknowledged the myriad partners which include the State Fire Marshal’s Office, Greyback Forestry, Oregon Department of Forestry, U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, and countless fire districts and jurisdictions that have come to help in this time of great need in the Illinois Valley.
“I chase bad guys, that’s my job, but I’m embedded in this team,” said Josephine County Sheriff Dave Daniel. “They’re working with me to help keep you safe. These professionals are doing their damnedest to get a handle on this thing.” He also said that it’s very important to sign up for citizen alerts. “It’s the best and fastest way to get critical information to you.”
Evacuation levels have remained the same for several days though officials say to keep a close watch for any changes, which can happen lightning fast. Pay extra attention when the winds are blowing.
A level 3 – GO NOW evacuation remains in place for the Hwy 199 area south of O’Brien from milepost 38 to the state line. A level 2 – GET SET evacuation is in place for O’Brien and the Takilma area. A level 1 – GET READY evacuation is in place north to Cave Junction. The American Red Cross has set up an evacuation shelter at Rogue Community College in Grants Pass. Livestock can be sheltered at the Josephine County Fairgrounds.
People can monitor evacuation updates and sign up for Citizen Alerts on the Rogue Valley Emergency Management site at https://rvem.org. There’s also an interactive Fire First Response Map showing evacuation zones.
Another great resource is the Smith River Complex North Facebook page. Daily video briefings, maps and press releases from the firefighters can be found there.