SELMA, Ore. – A shift in the wind allowed firefighters to torch miles of brush in an effort to save thousands of homes in southwest Oregon.
Hotshot crews poured fire from drip torches, burning a black swath of safety for the 17,000 people of the Illinois Valley. With each mile of burnout added along the 30-mile front of fire, the threat to the towns of Selma, Kerby, Cave Junction and O'Brien diminished.
"I certainly feel better today," Illinois Valley Fire Chief Kyle Kirchner told those who attended a community meeting Thursday night on the Illinois Valley High School football field.
"We're close to turning a corner, but we're not out of the woods yet."
The Florence and Sour Biscuit fires have burned 200,000 acres since lightning started them two weeks ago. Together, they have become the nation's top firefighting priority because of their size, behavior, and the threat to people.
Throughout Oregon, nearly 13,000 firefighters battled major wildfires burning 452,000 acres.
The burnout, which removes brush and other fuels that could feed the wildfire, comes just as the Siskiyou National Forest begins the season of most intense wildfire — the month of August. Firefighters expect the Florence and Sour Biscuit fires will smoke until the fall rains come.
Firefighters wanted to start the burnout earlier this week, but had to wait for the winds to shift so the fires they ignited would not spread toward town.
"Ma Nature does it on her own schedule," said Erik Christiansen, fire behavior analyst on the Florence Fire, as he watched the burnout from a pickup truck. "We can predict it, but she's still in control."
The fire was only 5 percent contained, but each new mile of burnout eased the threat.
The burnout of the strip one to two miles wide was expected to take three days, and the weather through the weekend was predicted to be favorable — cooler, moister air with gentle winds. One complication was a chance of rain on Monday. The burnouts must be done before then, or they can't be finished until the ground dries again, said Incident Commander Tom Lohrey.
With the threat diminishing, most local residents are staying, rather than heeding fire commanders' advice to evacuate. The Red Cross reported that only 950 people have left their homes.
Brian and Stephanie Pfeiffer still have their bags packed in case they have to flee, but they looked forward to a calm night.
"I think we'll be able to sleep tonight," Stephanie Pfeiffer said after the meeting. "I feel better now that [the firefighters] are feeling more optimistic."
While wildland firefighters concentrated on the burnout, structural firefighters finished mapping and assessing the hundreds of homes closest to the fire, burning about five miles west of U.S. Highway 199.
Meanwhile, fire commanders began building forces to combat the northern and western flanks of the fire. Bulldozers, hand crews and structural firefighters worked on the north end of the Florence Fire, to protect the community of Agness, which is a center of whitewater rafting river on the Rogue River.
Also high on commanders' priority list was the Timbered Rock fire about 20 miles north of Medford. It had burned about 20,000 acres, was 20 percent contained and was being battled by about 1,000 firefighters. Officials had urged the residents of 40 homes to evacuate.
Here are some of the other major wildfires that were burning Thursday in Oregon:
-- The Cache Mountain fire, burning on 4,200 acres 15 miles northwest of Sisters, has destroyed two homes but was 100 percent contained.
-- The Tiller Complex, east of Canyonville off Interstate 5, has burned 26,850 acres and was 25 percent contained.
-- The Toolbox Fire, which has scorched 86,794 acres in Lake County, was 75 percent contained.
In El Jebel, Colo., charges were likely to be pursued against one or more workmen suspected of sparking a wildfire that evacuated 200 homes, the local sheriff said.
That could make the suspects the first to face penalties under fire laws that were strengthened by the Legislature last month.
Seven workmen of a crew employed by Mendoza Concrete in Carbondale were wanted for questioning in relation to the 2,000-acre fire that started Wednesday, Garfield County Sheriff Tom Dalessandri said.
"No arrests have been made, but we anticipate an arrest will be made at the end of the investigation," he said Thursday.
The company did not return calls for comment.
The fire was 95 percent contained Thursday with full containment expected Friday. Residents were allowed to return home Thursday night.
Dalessandri said investigators believe workers set the fire while cutting rebar. Sparks showered onto tinder-dry grasses.
The sheriff said the workers' actions, given the fire bans in effect statewide, were akin to a person starting a campfire.
"It falls under the category of arson. It's deliberate indifference," Dalessandri said.
Workers could face a charge of fourth-degree arson, a felony, Dalessandri said.
Under newly revised state laws, people who deliberately start fires could spend up to 16 years in prison and be fined $750,000. A civil lawsuit against anyone responsible for a wildfire could force the person to pay triple damages.
The fire has destroyed three homes, including a teepee, and damaged two other homes, fire spokeswoman Kim Andree said. Two outbuildings, a boat and a trailer were destroyed, she said.
The blaze also crept up to lawns and structures of some multimillion-dollar homes.