ashland.news
July 18, 2024

Upper Applegate Fire caused by mowing dry grass, investigators say

As of Thursday morning, the Upper Applegate Fire had been 55% contained, according to the Oregon Department of Forestry's Southwest Oregon District. ODF photo
June 27, 2024

Fire 55% contained, holding at 896 acres as of Thursday morning, according to ODF

Rogue Valley Times staff report

Investigators say the cause of the Upper Applegate Fire was someone mowing dry grass, according to an update late Wednesday from the Oregon Department of Forestry’s Southwest Oregon District.

The fire started Thursday, June 20, south of Ruch and east of the Applegate River about 19 miles west of Ashland.

“Mowing dead or dried grass with power-driven equipment” is banned between 1 and 8 p.m. per the restrictions of the current fire danger level — moderate (blue) — in ODF’s Southwest Oregon District, the agency said.

“This restriction does not include mowing of green lawns, or equipment used for the commercial culture and harvest of agricultural crops,” the agency noted. “With equipment use being the second-leading cause of human-caused fires in Oregon, many may find it surprising that a lawn mower falls within that category.”

ODF urged people to “check local fire restrictions regularly during fire season to make sure you’re not potentially bringing a fire hazard onto the landscape.”

On Upper Applegate, the agency said it “will continue to investigate the fire and may potentially try to recoup firefighting costs.”

As of Thursday morning, crews had contained 55% of the fire, which was holding at 896 acres, according to the latest update.

Crews had finished 10% of mop-up work on hotspots, the update said. Overnight, they focused their mop-up effort on the fire’s southern end, and they continue to fortify containment lines, the update said.

Evacuation levels also carried over from Wednesday: Zone JAC-434, along Upper Applegate Road in the Ruch and Applegate areas, remains at Level 1 “Be Ready,” while JAC-436, a zone east of the fire that includes the ghost mining town of Buncom, remains at Level 2 “Be Set.”

People in a Level 1 “Be Ready” evacuation zone are encouraged to make plans to prepare to evacuate, and to act early if they are disabled or may otherwise need more time. Level 2 “Be Set” means there is significant danger and they may need to evacuate at a moment’s notice.

Firefighters are working in risky conditions, ODF said.

“On the northeastern side of the fire, hazard trees, or snags, remain a difficult and dangerous challenge to work around. Between the potential of trees falling and the steep ground, firefighters continue to work as safely as possible.

“On Tuesday, a firefighter broke a leg while working on a steep slope,” the Thursday update continued. “The firefighter was carried out by their crew before being met by Rogue Rescue and transported to a local hospital.

“The hazards on this incident increase the chance of injuries, and safety is a top priority as work continues.”

At Thursday’s Jackson County Board of Commissioners work session, commissioner Colleen Roberts said she attended the Upper Applegate Fire community meeting Tuesday. She reported that, in addition to the broken leg, there had been a few heat-related illnesses on the fire lines.

County Administrator Danny Jordan said he has been in touch with county emergency manager Holly Powers about the evacuation levels and getting regular updates on back-burn operations. In part because of limits due to heat stress, it’s been a challenge prepping some areas.

“They’re making night-by-night evaluations,” Jordan said at the work session.

He also said the Upper Applegate Fire has been the county’s first use of its zoned evacuation system. Jordan brought up challenges Emergency Management is facing with the old Jackson County evacuation system. He said many people signed up years ago wanting text alerts for every fire, but now call the county unsure of what they are getting notices for.

The fire also marks the first time emergency management has worked with a new voice-to-text system that creates phone alerts easier to understand.

On Thursday, the number of personnel assigned to the fire still surpassed 400, ODF said. Resources included “14 20-person crews, eight engines, four bulldozers, eight water tenders, two chippers, 10 medical personnel and numerous overhead,” with added air resources such as helicopters and air tankers available as needed, the update said.

For the latest updates, check protect.genasys.com.

The fire broke out late afternoon on June 20 and impacts private, U.S. Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service land, ODF said.

This story first appeared in the Rogue Valley Times.

View related stories on the Fire & Smoke page of Ashland.news.

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Bert Etling

Bert Etling is the executive editor of Ashland.news. Email him at betling@ashland.news.

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