By MARK FREEMAN
Firefighters today fear more triple-digit temperatures and stiff winds will coax the Oregon Gulch fire into another afternoon run of swelling 1,000 acres an hour and threatening scores of structures in wildlands 25 miles southeast of Ashland.
Spurred on by bone-dry conditions, the lightning fire discovered Thursday in the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument continued its swift march east into Klamath County and south toward Northern California's Copco Lake throughout Friday.
It also at times doubled back on itself, burning in thick timber and brush that flames had earlier bypassed.
The fire, which is burning in a mix of federal Bureau of Land Management and private lands, was listed Friday at about 11,000 acres and at 5 percent contained, said Don Hickman, a public information officer for the Oregon Department of Forestry team assigned to the fire.
"The fire's behavior was very, very squirrely," he said. "That thing blew up (Friday) just like it did Thursday. And the weather conditions look the same for (today).
"It's crazy up there," Hickman said.
None of the homes along Copco Road that were evacuated Thursday burned, but the ODF said late Friday that 170 structures were threatened. One home, several outbuildings and other structures and a few vehicles have been burned, but the number and type were not confirmed Friday, said Tom Fields, public information officer for the Beaver Complex.
He said about 350 fire personnel are camping outside Medford at Touvelle State Park, which is acting as the current headquarters for the complex.
Today's primary activities will be to scout the fire and get a better handle on its size and identify access points for fire crews and locations where they will start building fire lines to control the flames, according to ODF.
Discovered Thursday morning at about 10 acres in size, the fire likely ignited from a series of lightning strikes that hit the area during Wednesday evening's storm, Hickman says.
Afternoon winds kicked the fire into full gear, with flames and embers jumping as much as a mile and igniting the tinder-dry forest, ODF spokesman Link Smith said.
"There was nothing anyone could do," Smith said Friday afternoon. "You can't put anybody in front of that. All you can do is get out of its way and pick up the pieces."
By Thursday evening, it was estimated at 6,300 acres, and by noon Friday it had swelled to more than 11,000 acres. A special ODF fire team was called in to coordinate the fight.
By Friday afternoon, resources had grown to 350 firefighters, a dozen bulldozers and one fixed-wing airplane flying the fire boundaries to assess conditions, Hickman said.
The one-lane, privately maintained Copco Road swelled with fire vehicles ranging from large trucks hauling bulldozers to fire engines from several Rogue Valley municipal departments stationed at homes to defend them should flames reach them.
Huge swaths of the fire's official area initially went unburned, but ever-shifting winds had flames darting every which way during the day.
As Hickman stepped out of Copco Road to make way for a bulldozer, a Ponderosa pine erupted into a fireball about 500 yards away. Within minutes, flames shot up another pine to its top less than 200 yards away.
"We're concerned that snags might fall over the road, so we're only letting firefighters in," Hickman said. "We're also worried about the safety of firefighters."
The fire burned mostly into Klamath County and Northern California toward Copco Lake. But by mid-afternoon, a thick plume of black smoke crept north and west again, burning in heavily wooded areas that flames earlier side-stepped.
"Feel that?" says Lou Gugliotta, a veteran ODF fire spokesman. "It's creating its own wind."
The statewide team called in Friday to fight the Oregon Gulch fire was also given responsibility for quelling the Salt Creek fire, a lightning-ignited fire burning 15 miles north of Gold Hill. It was listed late Friday at about 100 acres and 30 percent contained.
Together, the two fires are being called the Beaver Complex fires.
Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470, or email at email@example.com.