Smith River Complex firefighters remain on the job

Nearly one month has passed since the Aug. 15 lightning storm that ignited multiple fires in the Smith River Complex – and the blazes, with a footprint that’s grown to encompass over 86,000 total acres (with about 10,000 on the Oregon side of the state border), are now 21% contained.
On Monday the Josephine County Sheriff reduced evacuation recommendations from Level 2 to Level 1 – BE READY status for the communities of O’Brien, Takilma and for those living east of Highway 199 from mile post 39 to the OR/CAL border. All other evacuation recommendations remain unchanged.
Within the fire’s footprint, after recent cooler wet weather had “put the fire to sleep,” with the return of warm dry weather and afternoon breezes along the ridge tops, parts of the blaze are showing some activity.
Thus 1,800 firefighters remain assigned to the Smith River Complex, including 52 crews, 10 helicopters, 87 fire trucks, 16 bulldozers, 29 water tenders, 19 masticators and two skid steers.
Public information officer Kale Casey with the Alaska Incident Management Team said fire crews assigned to maintain vigilance along the east and northeast sides of the fire closest to the Illinois Valley have an “absolute focus to ensure that remaining heat signatures are monitored and extinguished.” Regular infrared flights provide fire crews with exact coordinates of remaining heat and drones patrolling the skies at night also provide crews with fresh accurate data each morning. “Fire managers utilize the expertise of incident meteorologists, fire behavior analysts, and long-term fire planners to understand and anticipate the likelihood of fire spread and direction.”
Fire managers with the Alaska Team want people to understand that the biggest threat right now is not from the current fire behavior within the fire perimeter. “Residents in and around the Illinois Valley need to be aware that new human-caused fire starts are a bigger threat,” Casey said. “Hot and dry weather is keeping the fuels in the Illinois Valley dry and receptive. Neighbors helping neighbors with wildfire prevention awareness is critical to the ongoing efforts to reduce the threats to everyone in and around the Illinois Valley.”
That said, firefighters are continuing with strategic burning operations to tame the Smith River Complex. By utilizing natural land features and choosing when to tackle areas of the blaze still presenting potential threats to communities, fire managers save time and minimize risks to firefighters as they safely reduce the advancement of the main part of the fire.
“We can conduct burn out operations way faster [than direct fire line attacks] and get out ahead of the fire,” said Larry Weddle, division supervisor with the Alaska team. He also explained that burn out operations are conducted in a manner and timeframe to prevent extreme fire behavior. “We’re not going to nuke it down… this is much lower intensity. When you talk about extreme fire behavior, that’s when you effectively cook the soil layer and all the nutrients out of it. We’re not doing that. Our goal is to be the least impactful as possible but to still create an efficient break to stop the fire.”

Public information officers assure that hot shots crews will continue to patrol existing fire lines on daily “search and extinguish” missions. “Vigilance is key and the process takes time. The firing operations that you’re seeing here will increase containment over time, but significant work remains.”
While crews are engaged with burnout operations, tightening up hand lines, increasing containment and putting out hot spots on the north end of the Smith River Complex, additional focus shifts to the west side of the fire’s perimeter, with some firefighting assets being moved closer to Brookings to protect communities and natural values along the coast.
Last Sunday Del Norte County residents were thrilled when Pacific Power was finally able to switch power from generators back to normal service. Also on Sunday a rock slide closed Highway 199 again, three miles south of Patrick Creek Road. These types of road closures are likely to occur throughout the fall and winter, especially as rain is added to the mix on slopes already destabilized from the fires.
A fuel mix-up wreaked havoc after a fuel vendor mistakenly filled fuel tenders at the Gasquet Base Camp with diesel instead of gasoline last Thursday. By mid-afternoon Friday multiple reports came in regarding vehicle malfunctions. Of the 700 vehicles on the Smith River Complex, 42 were disabled, causing an “operational pause by all fire personnel on the fireline.” Aside from damage to vehicles and some logistical issues, there were no negative consequences to fire operations. Later that evening all operations were back on track – though some firefighters, deprived of their transportation, ended up camping out that night.
To stay current on evacuations, monitor the Rogue Valley Emergency Management site and sign up for the Alert System and updates at rvem.org. Information and myriad links pertaining to the fire are consolidated efficiently on the Smith River Complex North Facebook page.