Fire expected to grow fivefold, burn until October - or later

Fire expected to grow fivefold, burn until October - or later
A firefighter working on the Big Windy fire watches a column of smoke. (Photo from Inciweb)

MEDFORD, Ore. (AP) — The terrain at one of the forest fires in southwestern Oregon is so forbidding and the vegetation so dry that veteran firefighters expect it to grow more than fivefold and burn until autumn — unless there's rain in the meantime.

The area of the Big Windy fire centered 25 miles northwest of Grants Pass was reported Tuesday at more than 9,000 acres, about 14 square miles.

Veteran fire officials told the Medford Mail Tribune their best-guess scenario is it will expand to nearly 50,000 acres by the fall, about 78 square miles — if firefighters can keep the complex of three blazes from jumping the lines they're trying to establish.

"We're going to live with these fires until October 15th or later," said Dan Thorpe, forester in charge of the state Department of Forestry's southwest district and a veteran of 41 fire seasons.

The fire is in the Siskiyous, a range that's part of the Klamath Mountains straddling southwest Oregon and Northern California.

It's one of five major fires burning in southwest Oregon. The largest, the Douglas Complex, is burning to the northeast on about 60 square miles.

Another veteran firefighter said this season is shaping up as more difficult than either of two other tough fire years in Oregon, 1987 and 2002 — the latter the year of the 780 square-mile Biscuit fire.

"The conditions are a lot drier," said Kevin Donham, fire staff officer for the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest, who has seen 32 fire seasons.

The strategy at the Big Windy is to hold the flames between the Rogue River to the north and the Bear Camp Road to the south, with flanking lines east and west.

Bear Camp has become well known as the twisty, mountainous two-lane stretch where a San Francisco man died of exposure in December 2006 seeking help for his family, whose car got stuck in snow as they tried to take a shortcut to the coast.

The road has been closed because of the fire. Crews have been "burning out" in the area, widening the line created by the road.

North of the river, fire crews are burning out vegetation around a lodge as well as a cabin once owned by western novelist Zane Grey. That's a precaution against the fire jumping the river and getting to the structures. Firefighters are patrolling for small fires caused by embers shooting over the canyon walls to the north.

"I think we can hold Bear Camp," Donham said.

"The flanks make me nervous, though," he said. "But we have the best minds in the world noodling this stuff."

He stopped talking to study a map and added: "There are a lot of long days ahead of us."

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press