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Crews battle wildfires in Oregon as heat and wind threaten disaster

Fire officials are hoping a wave of hands on the perimeter of Oregon’s largest August wildfire can stop it before a heat wave and potential wind gusts multiply its size.

The 10,709-acre Rum Creek Fire has already doubled in size over the weekend, claiming the life of a firefighter and torching a home, they said.

Fear of predicted 100-degree days and potential gusty winds is inspiring a rush to clear and secure fire lines along the south rear of the blaze, where thousands of homes could have a view fireside if it reverses with the wind, officials said.

Additional fire crews specializing in structural protection arrived at the scene of the blaze on Sunday, according to the latest federal update. The total number of state-led structure protection firefighters at the scene was 135, the update said.

“They are installing sprinkler kits, using hand tools to remove vegetation and other measures to better protect homes and outbuildings,” the update, published under the direction of the US Bureau of Land Management, said.

The wildfire 240 miles south of Portland is in an area that includes the Rogue River National Wild and Scenic and the Rand Recreation Area, both managed by the US Bureau of Land Management.

The blaze is one of 42 active wildfires in the Southwest, California, Pacific Northwest, Idaho and Montana, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. More than 300,000 acres have been consumed by the fires, a daily report said Monday.

The center warned of “significant potential for wildfires” this week. For southwestern Oregon, structures south of the Rum Creek Fire are of concern.

“The concern for the next few days, there are triple digit temperatures in the forecast, and we are going to see the potential for gusty winds that will push it south-southeast, in a very populated area,” said Kyle Reed, spokesperson for the federal and state response.

National Weather Service meteorologist Brian Nieuwenhuis said the change that would cause winds to shift from north to south would likely occur Tuesday evening. Gusts could reach 20 mph.

“It seems quite likely,” he said. “It’s not a strong wind, but it’s a complete change of direction. It would blow straight into populated areas.”

In the path of the fire, if it turned around, is the seaside resort of Galicia, named after Frenchman Louis Galice, who is said to have discovered gold in the area dominated by the Rogue River. The population of the unincorporated community has not been tracked by the US Census Bureau.

Residents of the nearby town of Merlin have been told to await possible evacuation orders, and boating on the Rogue River in the area of ​​the fire has been suspended by the Josephine County Sheriff’s Office.

Mandatory evacuations were in effect for areas along the perimeter of the fire.

State fire officials said 824 homes threatened by the Rum Creek Fire were under defense efforts. More than 900 firefighters, managers and support personnel, including four helicopter crews, were assigned to the blaze.

On Saturday, Governor Kate Brown cited the threat to nearby Galicia and Rand by giving the state fire marshal command of the blaze and directing local departments to contribute firefighters to the effort as part of mutual aid.

She declared a state of emergency on Monday to ensure Oregon is prepared for the worst amid a fire weather forecast, including drier than normal conditions.

The worst includes what happened in 2020, when five fires spread beyond 100,000 acres and several other smaller wildfires raged through September, killing nine and setting thousands on fire. of structures, according to a state after-action review and Portland’s NBC affiliate KGW.

The result was successful legislation last year that will provide more than $220 million for fire preparedness and modernization of firefighting tools and organizations.

Karl Koenig, president of the Oregon State Fire Council, a union that represents more than 3,500 state firefighters, emergency medical service workers and other first responders, said the ashes of 2020 weigh heavily in Oregon.

That year, firefighters across the state were dangerously scattered as they battled 1 million acres of wildfire. The disaster inspired soul-searching and a review of how fires are handled in the state.

The review after the fires helped produce a spirit of prevention and rapid attacks based on the latest mapping and forecast modeling, which can be seen in the fight against the current threat, Koenig said.

“We’re pouring into this Rum Creek Fire,” he said. “If it’s going south, we’re talking thousands of households. But it’s still at a manageable level. We’re able to focus resources and put them where they’ll be most effective.”

The blaze began on August 17 with a lightning strike and the next day claimed the life of firefighter Logan Taylor, 25, operator of a private state-contracted firefighting company, according to the Oregon Department of Forestry and Bureau of Land Management. .

Authorities said he was hit by a tree.

Taylor was the second firefighter to die after being struck by a falling tree in Oregon this month. Collin Hagan, 27, died Aug. 10 while battling the Big Swamp Fire in Douglas County, Oregon, federal officials said.

On Monday, public institutions in Oregon were under orders from the governor to fly flags at half-mast in memory of Taylor. “My heart breaks for Logan Taylor’s family, friends and crew,” Governor Brown said in a statement Friday.

The heat wave, fueled by a northward-moving high pressure system over California and Nevada, is expected to hit southwestern Oregon the hardest on Tuesday and keep above-normal high temperatures in the area of ​​the fire for most of the week.

On Tuesday, high temperatures above the 100-degree mark were expected, according to the National Weather Service.

Relief was possible on Friday with a minor cold front off the Pacific that could move in and bring temperatures down 5 to 10 degrees for the Rum Creek Fire area, the weather service’s Nieuwenhuis said.

The change in weather would be welcome, the forecaster said, if it didn’t include strong Pacific winds.

“That would be a concern,” he said.

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