Rum Creek Fire top priority in the state

·7 min read

Aug. 31—The Rum Creek Fire is the highest priority fire in the state, and firefighters vowed to do everything in their power to stop the fire from sweeping through rural homes, Merlin and Grants Pass.

Wildland firefighters are working around the clock to keep the fire burning northwest of Merlin and Grants Pass as small as possible, and structural firefighters who protect homes and buildings are keeping the fire back, clearing away flammable fuels from properties, putting out spot fires and setting up sprinkler systems, fire managers said.

From Tuesday morning to Wednesday morning, the fire grew 1,220 acres to reach 12,916 acres. Firefighters were holding the fire back from Galice, and as of Wednesday morning the fire hadn't spread past Indian Mary Park toward Merlin, according to InciWeb.

Overnight, the fire jumped a fire line on the east side of the fire near McKnabe Creek, burning several hundred acres. Resources were being shifted to the area to corral the fire and establish new control lines, fire managers said Wednesday.

On Wednesday morning, the fire was already burning actively on the ridges. Firefighters were expecting potential spot fires, and had shifted resources to continue alternate contingency fire lines to the east, fire managers said.

Firefighters conducted successful burnouts on the south side of the fire to eliminate remaining fuels between control lines and the fire's edge. Wednesday plans included working to secure the southeast corner of the fire and up toward the north. Hose lays and pumps were set up along many control lines, including those constructed near Stratton Creek, fire managers said.

On the less populated west side of the fire, firefighters secured more of the western edge through burnout operations and more fire line construction to tie in with existing lines, fire managers said.

So many fire departments from across the state have converged on the fire that the area now has the equivalent of Oregon's largest structural fire department, according to the State Fire Marshal's Office.

Nearly 2,000 people are working on the effort, including wildland and structural firefighters, managers and fire camp support crews, fire managers said.

"I will not make you any guarantees, except one. If that fire comes down off that hill, and it looks like it's going to bear down on this community, we will throw every piece of equipment we have and the ones we have waiting to protect your structures," said Scott Magers from the State Fire Marshal's Office, one of three incident commanders on the fire.

Along with other fire officials, he spoke Tuesday night before a crowd of more than 500 people assembled for a community meeting at North Valley High School near Merlin. The crowd applauded and cheered his words.

A lightning storm Aug. 17 sparked the Rum Creek Fire plus more than 70 others across Jackson and Josephine counties. Local firefighters attacked the fires aggressively and put them out, but the Rum Creek Fire burning in the steep, rugged terrain of the lower Rogue River canyon was the one that escaped to become a significant fire, said Oregon Department of Forestry Southwest District Forester Tyler McCarty.

A flood of outside help arrived after the fire made a run last week. Those firefighters and managers joined together with local agencies to tackle the fire on multiple flanks.

McCarty said the goals are to keep firefighters and the public safe, keep the fire as small as possible and protect homes, natural resources and recreational areas.

"These folks have been working tirelessly around the clock to meet those goals," he said at the community meeting.

On the eastern flank of the blaze closest to Merlin, bulldozers scraped out lines to check the spread of the fire. On steep terrain where bulldozers can't reach, firefighters dug and scraped fire lines with their hand tools.

An initial line stretches along the east side, with contingency lines closer to Merlin in case the fire gets past the first line, said John Flannigan, operations section chief for the multiagency Northwest Incident Management Team 13.

Task forces of firefighters are working to protect homes in Galice, which is flanked to the north and east by the fire. The Galice and Rand areas remain under a "Level 3 — Go Now" evacuation alert as of Wednesday morning, fire managers said.

Firefighters are also triaging and preparing homes to be more fire resilient on the more populated south and east sides of the fire, fire managers said.

Rural homes to the south and east were under a "Level 2 — Be Set" to evacuate alert as of Wednesday morning.

Residential areas become denser and denser as they approach Merlin and Grants Pass. The outskirts of Merlin and Hugo plus the communities themselves were under a "Level 1 — Be Ready" evacuation alert as of Wednesday morning.

Josephine County Sheriff Dave Daniel urged residents to heed evacuation alerts. With firefighters going back and forth along roads in the area, the public should stay away and not come to look at operations, he said.

Magers said residents who don't leave when their home is under a "Level 3 — Go Now" order put themselves and everyone else in danger.

If firefighters find residents at home, they'll have to turn their attention to saving lives, not protecting homes and property in the area, Magers said.

People at less dangerous evacuation alert levels can help protect their homes by removing fuels that could be ignited by sparks and embers drifting in the air.

Remove leaves, pine needles and other debris from roofs and gutters. Clear vegetation away from homes. Cover vents with fine-mesh screen to block out embers. Don't keep wood and other flammable material under decks and near houses, and take other precautions.

Everyone in the "Level 2 — Be Set" and "Level 1 — Be Ready" zones should make plans to escape with pets, prescriptions, phone numbers, documents, eyeglasses, photos, computers, cash and debit/credit cards and other things they would need to survive and rebuild their lives.

"Those are the basics that will help you. In a worst-case situation if you have to start over, what are the foundational things that you need? Now's a good time to be working on that," said Josephine County Emergency Manager Emily Ring.

Dave Warner, one of the fire behavior analysts assigned to the fire, said the area will experience hot, dry weather followed by a dry cold front moving in Friday. The area could see 30 mph winds on ridgetops.

Late summer is the most dangerous time, Warner said.

"Those dead fuels are as dry as they can be. They're very receptive to fire movement. Also, the live fuels out there, all the live vegetation, it's also stressed because of a lack of moisture. So it's becoming more available every day for the fire to progress through the forest," Warner said.

Fire managers urged a wildfire and smoke-weary public to remain strong and resilient. They noted the whole community is coming together to help. With rafting shut down on the lower Rogue River, rafting companies have shuttled firefighters and equipment. Local law enforcement, firefighters and forestry companies are working alongside outside crews who've come in to help, and neighbors are helping neighbors.

For updates on evacuation zones and the latest mapping of the fire's footprint, see facebook.com/josephinecountyEM.

For air quality updates, see oraqi.deq.state.or.us/home/map.

For general information about the Rum Creek Fire, including operations and acreage updates posted each morning, see inciweb.nwcg.gov/incident/8348/.

To sign up for Citizen Alert evacuation alerts via phone, text or email, visit rvem.org.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.