About 150 wildland firefighters have been relocated from the Collier Butte Fire east of Gold Beach to other fires throughout the West as fires threaten communities in what many officials are calling the worst wildfire season on record.
Almost 100 uncontained fires rage throughout the nation, stretching thin crews, helicopters and planes, water tenders and support personnel. Other fires are in need of vast numbers of resources to protect lives and homes, and crews and aircraft are being reassigned to protect them.
Last week, fire managers declared a National Preparedness Level V, the highest level possible.
Collier Butte Fire managers based in Gold Beach are strategically positioning the resources they have to hold and secure primary and alternate containment lines. Additionally, aviation managers are working to coordinate the sharing of aircraft with other fires in southwestern Oregon.
There are currently about 400 firefighters on the Collier Butte Fire, 18 miles into the Kalmiopsis Wilderness. No homes are threatened.
The fire, fanned by the Chetco Effect’s gusty northeast winds, burned almost 1,400 acres last weekend, for a total of 6,533 acres as of Monday morning and 7,387 acres by Tuesday. It is 25 percent contained, meaning fire lines have been placed in the path of the fire, usually ridgelines, to keep it from spreading into other valleys.
Weather forecasters with the U.S. Forest Service say that, although the Chetco Effect has dissipated, conditions will remain hot and dry for the next few days. Critical fire weather factors have led them to issue an incident-specific Red Flag Warning until Tuesday night due to the low relative humidity.
Not surprisingly, federal forecasting officials have indicated the entire southwestern corner of Oregon is of “significant wildland fire potential” and will remain so through September.
Significant events in the past three days have included smoldering along the southern flanks of the fire in heavy fuels; active burning with isolated torching and short uphill runs on the east flank; and active burning on the west side of the fire in unburned fuel pockets inside control lines.
The fire is 20 percent contained, with lines atop ridges guarding the western end of the fire, and alternate lines being built farther west in case the fire jumps.
Monday night’s winds, combined with the low humidity, contributed to active burning through the night on the eastern flank of the fire in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness Area.
Monday, forecasters expected the fire to push south along the southern and southwestern control lines, with winds possibly driving flames into the crowns of trees and spotting in nearby areas.
Conditions should remain about the same throughout the week, unless the weather changes. Winds have subsided, but the humidity remains low.
Fire officials believe unburned fuel will remain inside the control lines, but fire crews were told to expect isolated torching and continued active burning along the flanks of the fire.
Elsewhere in the West
CalFire, the firefighting agency in California, reported 14,000 firefighters are battling 19 major fires — in a state where officials said there wasn’t even a break between last year’s fire season and this.
There, numerous structures have been lost and thousands in small communities have been evacuated.
Persistent drought is exacerbating the situation throughout the West.
The Gasquet Fire, which brought smoke to the Oregon Coast Saturday, is comprised of six fires south of Patrick Creek along Highway 199 that have collectively burned more than 4,000 acres.
The Coon Fire made a run up a hill Sunday night, forcing crews to hold a line to prevent spot fires.
A high pressure over California and the Pacific Ocean was expected to bring hotter and drier conditions, with an offshore wind keeping skies clear. But it will also bring gusty northeast winds at night.
The fire is burning in timber, litter and understories; brush and tall grasses, and heavier fuels are becoming more involved in the fire’s spread, fire officials reported.
Bowhunters in the area are asked to obey posted closure signs on various Forest Service roads and trails.
More than 20 large fires are actively burning throughout Oregon, most in the central and eastern parts of the state, Forest Service websites indicate.
The largest, the Cornet-Windy Ridge fire near Baker City in Eastern Oregon has burned 96,762 acres, but numerous others to the west of it are burning in the Umatilla National Forest.
The Chelan fire in Washington has been named the top priority fire in the country, with more than 1,500 people evacuated from their homes and communities and 50 homes lost.
The high costs
The U.S. Forest Service is burning through about $100 million a week fighting fires throughout the West, and next week, will have spent its firefighting budget for the year, officials said.
The Collier Butte Fire has cost $5.9 million so far, an official at the Gold Beach fire base said.
The Coos Forest Protective Agency, which covers much of Curry County, reported that while local resources are drawn down, enough firefighters are kept in the district to provide initial attack for a new fire start. If a fire escapes initial attack, however, there are few resources available in the state to help.
“We really need the public to be careful,” said John Flannigan, prevention specialist for CFPA, “One mistake could lead to a devastating fire. Any fire start has the potential to turn catastrophic for the district and the communities within.”