Rain temporarily tamps down Smith River Complex fires

Helicopters load water and retardant at Rock’n R Ranch Thursday, Aug. 31.
(Photo courtesy of Reggie Boltz for the Illinois Valley News)

Rain! Almost every living thing in the Illinois Valley surely felt relief when the wet stuff came at the end of last week. While not enough to erase the threat from the Smith River Complex fires, rain, cooler temperatures and higher humidity brought a substantial reprieve from the hazardous levels of smoke and immediate threat of wildfire.
Also, Hwy. 199 was reopened Sept. 2 to all traffic. Caltrans and the California Highway Patrol is piloting cars through Patrick’s Creek to Oregon Mountain Road South – so delays are expected. People are urged to drive cautiously, as fire crews, Caltrans and construction crews are working along and near the roadway.
O’Brien residents living south of Highway 199 milepost 38 finally got to go home Sept. 2 after Josephine County Sheriff Dave Daniel reduced evacuation orders from Level 3 to Level 2. The Level 2 GET SET warning now includes O’Brien, Takilma and the Hwy 199 corridor into California. The Level 1 GET READY evacuation status remains in place north to Cave Junction.
“Some structure fire fighters have been sent home due to diminished threat due to so much wetting rain in the past few days,” said Jon Koenig, with the Oregon State Fire Marshal office. “We are creating a very solid wall of protection all around the structures and infrastructures on the Smith River Complex North. We’re still maintaining a tactical patrol presence in all the places we have established good structure protection.”
OSFM task forces from Benton, Klamath, Lane, Marion, and Polk counties assessed, prepped, and provided protection to more than 700 homes and 1,800 outbuildings, improving the fire resiliency of more than 2,500 structures within the Illinois Valley. They prepositioned water tanks, portable pumps, handlines, standalone sprinkler systems and other equipment to provide protection to homes near fire perimeters – and firefighters will continue working with local resources to protect structures near fire lines.
As of Sept. 4, the Smith River Complex fires, more than 19% contained, had a collective footprint encompassing 84,908 acres, with just over 10,000 acres in Oregon. Keep in mind that this number includes lands impacted by backburn operations; and in Oregon, the fire has also burned into the 2002 Biscuit Fire footprint, which is helping to slow it down.
Over 2,600 men and women were still working this fire as of last Sunday. That’s 56 crews utilizing 10 helicopters; 195 engines; 32 dozers; 28 water tenders; 18 masticators; and sixskid-steers.
Fire managers “feel pretty good” about the current situation. The wet conditions enabled firefighters to focus on fireline construction and improvement as well as mopping up residual hot spots. An incident management team from Alaska transitions in on Wednesday, and John Spencer, outgoing operations section chief from Incident Management Team 13, said. “I think we’ll be setting them up for good success. We’ve had quite a change over the landscape and the crews are set up to respond to anything that flares up as the landscape dries out.”

So while the news is good, still, it’s not over until it’s over.
“It’s easy to forget fire restrictions after so much rain, but fire potential will increase quickly this week as a warming and drying trend develops,” Spencer said. (pull quote)
“This fire is not done by any means,” he added. “Even though we have lines all around the whole northern half of this complex there will still be heat pockets, interior and just off the line, that could, with west wind, cause little flare ups, so we’re trying to be diligent with our preparation.”
Firefighters will continue to work on fire lines as well as tactical firing and back-burning operations until fire managers are confident the fire won’t cross containment lines. Helicopters are utilized when possible to douse areas where rain did not penetrate the forest canopy as well as in areas too steep for firefighters to safely access.
On the northeast side of the fire, Spencer said that as some hose lines are being removed, that other hoselines will be maintained where critical for structure protection, near the fire line. “The whole area is being carefully monitored,” he said. On the northwest side of fire, burn out operations and work to tie in fire lines is ongoing, to prevent the blaze from growing toward the coast -potentially threatening Brookings.
In addition to the official sources of information listed below, many people now tune into a popular show on YouTube, ‘The Lookout,’ presented by Zeke Lunder, a fire behavior analyst with 25 years of wildfire experience. Lunder now utilizes publicly available information to provide expert analysis of wildfires burning throughout the region without the constraints of working for any agency.
The Lookout (an independent media company) reports on wildfires, forestry, land management, and rural culture. “We’re driven by a desire to help people understand how wildfires work, the strategies employed by people attempting to manage them and the intersection of fire and culture,” Lunder said.

On the Sept. 1 episode of The Lookout, Lunder pointed out that post-fire analysis shows how, on average, 70% of burned lands do so at low-to-moderate severity and that there’s many beneficial impacts from wildfire. He explains how lands in this region have evolved with fire on the landscapes and that 100 years of fire suppression didn’t do the forests any favors.

“When there’s a wildfire, the media gets a hold of an acreage and refers to it as ‘10,000 acres devastated by wildfire’ when that’s almost never true,” he said.

Lunder is committed to presenting both sides of every fire story without displaying a bias to any viewpoint – for example, he’ll clearly state if and when any specific area has been impacted harshly by high severity fire. And regarding severity, he’ll help his listeners comprehend the reasons why it may have burned hot – or not. What was the wind like? Was it a brushy field with hot flashy fuels? Was the slope steep? Was it fire-resistant old growth or a timber plantation which typically burns hotter?

In his show Aug. 31, he questions the narrative that says: “All fire is bad. Fire is the enemy, firefighters are heroic and homeowners are victims.” He agrees that firefighter are heroes, but also points out that fire is a natural process and that some homeowners don’t do enough to prepare for the annual reality of wildfire. He also talks about how logging operations leaving slash behind in the forests combined with climate change and fire suppression are contributing factors to the increase in big wildfires in recent decades.
Access an interactive Fire First Response Map showing evacuation zones near the Smith River Complex and sign up for Citizen Alerts on the Rogue Valley Emergency Management site at https://rvem.org.

The Smith River Complex North Facebook page provides daily video briefings, maps and press releases from the firefighters. And, go to https://inciweb.nwcg.gov/ for information on the Smith River Complex or any wildfire burning in the USA.