With the Hello fire burning in the thick of the rugged Red Buttes Wilderness, firefighters are employing minimum impact tactics to reduce their bootprints on the ground.

With the Hello fire burning in the thick of the rugged Red Buttes Wilderness, firefighters are employing minimum impact tactics to reduce their bootprints on the ground.

"We have the authorization to use helicopters to drop crews off, chainsaws are approved and we can put pumps in the creek," observed Tom Lavagnino, spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service.

"But we are still minimizing everything we do in there," he added. "For instance, we are spiking (overnighting) a crew in there to minimize the transport time. They are ready to go early in the morning and can also monitor the fire overnight."

The 465-acre Hello fire is one of three fires in the Fort Complex fires burning nearly a dozen miles north of Happy Camp, Calif. The other two are the 965-acre Goff fire and the 347-acre Lick fire, both outside the wilderness area.

The Hello and Lick fires are in the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest, while the Goff fire is in the Klamath National Forest.

All three, covering a total 1,787 acres near the Oregon-California border by Monday afternoon, were sparked by an Aug. 5 lightning storm. There are 616 firefighters assigned to the fire complex, which is 10 percent contained, Lavagnino said.

Some $2 million has been spent on fighting the fires thus far.

While they are taking care to reduce their impact on the wilderness, firefighters are working aggressively to stop all three fires, officials stressed.

In addition to a half-dozen helicopters dipping huge water buckets into Applegate Lake to drop on hot spots, planes flying out of the Medford air tanker base are dropping retardant on the fires, Lavagnino said.

"We use the same type of retardant and the same limitation when we drop in the wilderness — it has to be 300 feet away from any waterway," he said.

But the goal is the same whether they are in the wilderness or outside its boundaries, he said.

"We drop along strategic ridges where it is hot and dry," said the veteran firefighter. "Right now, the fire lines are being done indirectly. You don't put crews at the head of a fire. You back them off on strategic ridges."

Contingency fire lines also are being constructed as part of a fallback suppression plan, he said.

Although the weather has reached triple digits, the fire has been mostly burning on the ground, he noted.

"This is not a column-dominated event, not a crown fire," he said, referring to burning in the crowns of trees. "This has mostly been an underburn and not a stand replacement event."

That means the fire is burning a lot of underbrush while leaving many of the larger trees intact, he noted.

But the fires still pose a formidable challenge to firefighters, officials said, noting the burned areas are steep, with hazards in the form of rolling logs and burning snags.

But so far there has only been one minor laceration and a broken finger, they report.

"There is poison oak and bee stings but the biggest problem is heat-related," Lavagnino said. "It takes its toll on everyone."

Meanwhile, motorists along Upper Applegate Road as well as Highway 96 between Interstate 5 and Happy Camp are asked to drive with extreme caution because of firefighters and equipment in the area.

The most recent recreation area closure includes the south end of Applegate Lake. For other closures and restrictions because of the fires, see www.inciweb.org.

Further information will be available during a public meeting about the fires beginning at 6 p.m. today at the Upper Applegate Grange Hall off of Upper Applegate Road.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.