Local staffing boosted during Friday and Saturday’s red flag warning period
By Holly Dillemuth, Ashland.news
On the eve of the Almeda Fire anniversary, Ashland Fire & Rescue sent three firefighters and an engine to help fight the Van Meter Fire that erupted Wednesday on Stukel Mountain in Klamath County, about 13 miles southeast of Klamath Falls.
Chris Chambers, wildfire division chief for Ashland Fire & Rescue, said the department sent a midsize engine along with extra aid to Klamath County as part of an arrangement between area stations.
“It’s a perfect engine for that fire, it’ll help them get around, they can go offroad,” Chambers said Wednesday afternoon. “They also have capacity to help protect structures.
“That’s kind of our max to send out for a deployment like that,” Chambers added.
The fast-moving wildfire, first reported at 12:24 p.m. Wednesday, had erupted to between 800 and 1,000 acres by late afternoon and 3,500 acres by Thursday morning, Sept. 8. Lightning was observed in the area of the fire Wednesday morning but an official cause has not yet been confirmed.
A temporary Red Cross shelter has been set up at Klamath County Fairgrounds in Klamath Falls.
Chambers said when Ashland Fire & Rescue sends firefighters to aid other stations in the region, they are coming off their regular shift rotation.
“That means we’ve got to figure out people to come in and fill those spots, at least to get us to eight (fire fighters),” Chambers said.
“Chances are we need one to two folks to come in immediately and work.”
Chambers said it’s one of the first deployments by Ashland Fire & Rescue in a couple of years because of the extreme fire danger in Ashland.
“Fire danger here and the weather conditions as they are going to be this weekend are so concerning that we don’t want to send folks out of the area,” Chamber said.
With Klamath County just next door, approximately 70 miles away, Chambers said, “it’s certainly worth (it)” to send aid.
Reciprocally, when Ashland Fire & Rescue is in need, “they are our closest partners.”
“The incoming weather is going to be the biggest concern,” Chambers said. “We kind of skirted the lightning this morning, just went kind of west of us.”
Due to forecast gusty winds and low humidity, the National Weather Service has issued a red flag warning for the period from midnight Thursday night until 10 a.m. Saturday. A red flag warning means any fires that develop will likely spread rapidly.
Chambers said there was a fire reported behind Mount Ashland, but it was knocked down quickly.
Oregon Department of Forestry on Wednesday initially reported 11 fires in southwest Oregon on Wednesday following early morning lightning, but confirmed four.
“As the weather warms up again and the humidity falls, which it is going to certainly tomorrow (Thursday) and even more so on Friday and Saturday, we could see fires pop up and be burning pretty aggressively in those conditions,” Chambers said.
Chambers biggest concern is a forecast for similar weather patterns on Friday and Saturday as southern Oregon experienced during the Almeda Fire in September 2020.
“Not as strong as what we had during the Almeda event, but certainly concerning,” he said. “We are already committing to staffing up our resources — instead of having our normal maximum of 10 firefighters, (we’re) having 12 each of those days.”
“I was thinking about leaving town,” Chambers added, “but now I’m thinking I’m not going to leave town.”
It will be all hands on deck on Friday, and all administrative staff will be on alert to be able to come back in and help on Saturday, according to Chambers.
“We’re kind of in the worst of it right now,” Chamber said. “We’ve seen fires around us because of windy conditions and really dry, dry fuels.
“It’s just a reminder that those kinds of fires can happen at any point, whether it’s from lightning or human causes,” Chambers added.
With the two-year Almeda Fire anniversary on Thursday, Chambers commented on the uncertainty of the when and where when it comes to wildfires.
“We’re in a game of … Russian Roulette is not really the right term, it’s just, it is a random draw,” Chambers said. “Where’s a fire going to start? Is it going to impact us? What’s the direction of the wind? I mean, there’s just not a way to predict where a fire’s going to happen and so it’s just luck of the draw every time we get these weather events.”
Chambers encouraged the community to keep eyes and ears open and to report suspicious activity.
“It still blows my mind that somebody wandered into a neighborhood on a very windy day and somehow set a fire or accidentally set a fire and wandered out of that neighborhood and nobody saw them,” Chambers said of the Almeda Fire, which remains under investigation two years later. “It’s kind of hard to imagine that that could happen, with that many houses and people around … but it did. It’s just a lesson that we need to be vigilant in our community. If we see something, we need to say something and it’s okay if something is suspicious, to call 911 and have somebody check it out.”
Since the fire that destroyed some 2,500 homes a total of about 2,800 buildings across the Rogue Valley, Chambers said that managing traffic flow in an emergency and/or evacuation has improved in the last two years in the event of an evacuation effort, as well as adding an additional escape route at Mountain Avenue.
“The sad reality of it is, there’s only more fires in the future,” he said.
“(The Almeda Fire) was a lifetime event for everybody,” Chambers added. “No one had experienced anything like that up to that point and we’re still here and if we have … some kind of fire again that is seemingly catastrophic, we’re going to be here, responding … We’re here to protect the community.”
Reach Ashland.news reporter Holly Dillemuth at email@example.com.