As firefighters battle blazes creeping under a shroud of smoke into the urban interface of southwestern Oregon, they are also watching two fires in the remote mountains where accessibility by road is virtually non-existent.
Both the 3,700-acre Big Windy Complex in the lower Rogue River drainage and the nearly 2,000-acre Labrador fire on the edge of the Kalmiopsis Wilderness have the potential to grow into huge fires, officials warn.
The fires socking the region in smoke have grown to a combined roughly 40,000 acres. Several small fires are also burning along the Salmon River in Northern California.
The City of Ashland will open The Grove as a daytime respite center for people trying to escape the smoke.
The Grove, at 1195 E. Main St., will be open from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., today through Monday.
No animals are permitted and no services will be provided, organizers said. The Grove will be staffed by volunteers from the Community Emergency Response Team.
In Klamath County, firefighters raced quickly to snuff out several fires sparked by lightning early Thursday before they grew into conflagrations.
The largest of the estimated 75 fires sparked by July 26 dry lightning storms remains the Douglas Complex fire, which has grown to more than 28,500 acres. That fire is seven miles north of Glendale.
More than 100 homes have been evacuated and a pre-evacuation notice has been issued to more than 40 other residences.
Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber and senior U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden are expected to visit the Douglas Complex fire on Saturday.
More than 4,000 firefighters from throughout the region and the nation have been deployed to battle the growing blazes. No homes had been burned and no major injuries reported.
While no structures are in the immediate path of the Big Windy Complex, the remote area some 25 miles northwest of Grants Pass is ideal for an explosive wildfire, said Megan Harper, a spokeswoman for the joint command organizing the firefighting campaign.
"The main goal on the Big Windy is to keep it south of the river," she said. "We are sending in more resources to help work on the fire lines."
There are about 270 firefighters in that area now, she said.
"We are also getting some help from the Oregon Army National Guard," she said. "They are bringing in air support."
That will include helicopters capable of carrying large buckets to douse hot spots, she said, noting that will happen once the smoke clears enough for the aircraft to fly safely.
The fire is currently moving in a southeasterly direction toward the old Galice fire scar from the 1960s that was also partially burned by the 2002 Biscuit fire. Crews have been assigned to provide protection for the Black Bar lodge and Zane Grey cabin.
"The river and the terrain there is configured to help the fire cross the river," said veteran firefighter Don Ferguson. "If the smoke starts to clear, we expect spotting from the fire to be a third of a mile. That would obviously cross the river."
He was referring to spot fires caused by windblown embers.
"If it crosses the river, then heavy helicopters would be real important in trying to stop the fire," he said. "But we can only use them if the smoke clears. If it does, then the ventilation will make the fire burn hotter."
And the weather is expected to change beginning today or Saturday, helping to clear the air, officials said.
"There is a concern that when the lid comes off, it will increase the fire activity," he said.
The Bear Camp Road is closed in the area, as are trails through the region. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management has closed the wild section of the lower Rogue to river floaters because the smoke inhibits any aerial river rescues should one be needed.
The recreation section remains open, but the Grave Creek boat launch is closed. Boaters are advised to leave the river at the Argo, Almeda or Rand take-out sites.
On the Labrador fire a half-dozen air miles west of Selma, some 540 firefighters have been deployed, Harper said.
"They are letting that fire burn where it is in the wilderness," she said. "But they are keeping a watchful eye on it. They are removing brush along the roads outside the wilderness to prepare fire lines if it leaves the wilderness."
It is a long-standing U.S. Forest Service policy not to fight fires in wilderness areas, letting nature take its course. The Kalmiopsis is in the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest.
The 2,000-acre Brimstone fire about 10 miles northwest of Merlin is about 10 percent contained. About 800 firefighters have been sent to that blaze.
In Northern California, several small fires were started along the Salmon River near Sawyers Bar Wednesday evening, according to Klamath National Forest officials. Cause of the fires is under investigation.
Three small fires were contained but the Shelly fire has grown to about 60 acres in steep, timbered terrain. An air tanker was expected to help ground-based firefighters today, officials said.
Highway 93 is closed near Butler Flat because of fire debris rolling across the road.
Reach Mail Tribune reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.