The Chetco Bar Fire is now burning more than 175,000 acres in the mountains near the coastal Oregon town of Brookings. The good news is that a break in the weather fueled by the remnants of Tropical Storm Lidia should give fire crews a chance to catch up.
Southwest Oregon has seen months of high temperatures and little-to-no rain, creating ripe conditions for fire starts. One of the ways fire managers determine how fire-prone an area is, is a measure called the energy release component, or ERC.
“Essentially how receptive the fuels are to fire, and how much energy they’re going to release when they burn. And so those levels are at record levels right now for southwest Oregon. We’ve never seen any ERC measurements as high as they are right now,” says Jim Whittington with the Joint Information Center in Medford.
The Chetco Bar Fire has been taking advantage of this over the past week, jumping containment lines and spreading rapidly. Crews have been able to hold the lines nearest to coastal communities, but the east edge of the fire is now 8 miles from Cave Junction. Several coastal and Illinois Valley communities have been instructed to get ready to evacuate.
But this most recent weather system has given fire crews some breathing room.
“This weather has been a real blessing,” says Terry Krasko, public information officer for the Chetco Bar Fire.
Krasko says the increase in humidity has allowed crews to get a few areas fire spread under control after nearly a week of active fire behavior.
“We went from 10 percent containment to 5 percent containment,” Krasko said. “We really did not lose any mileage of containment lines, but the fire grew so much that it actually shrank the percentage of what we have contained right now.”
The east side of the Chetco Bar Fire is burning in the scar of the massive Biscuit Fire, which burned a half million acres in 2002. Fire crews are trying to use this to their advantage by resurrecting old bulldozed containment lines.
“(The fire) is churning through the brush and all the stuff that’s grown up since the Biscuit Fire,” said Whittington. “But we’re not anticipating it’s going to move very fast to the east.”
The Chetco Bar Fire is one of four burning in the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest in southwest Oregon. Add to that several others in Northern California and the entire region has been experiencing severe wildfire smoke conditions – hovering in the “very unhealthy” to “hazardous” air quality ratings for several days in population centers like Medford, Ashland and Grants Pass.
Rain and higher humidity levels are reaching the area as the remnant weather from tropical storm Lidia moves north from Mexico's Baja California peninsula. That should help slow all of the fires in the region, but with rain comes lightening and, more recently, a flash flood watch for southwest Oregon.
Fire officials say the smoke will likely stick around until there’s a “season-ending event” – either a massive rain or snow shower that extinguishes the fire. This current weather system, while helpful, is not that event.
“Smoke is going to continue to be an issue in the Rogue Valley really for the foreseeable. There’s no guarantees that this system going to push all of it out,” Whittington says.
And even if it does, things are expected to dry out once again, and bring another round of smoke along with it.