CANYONVILLE — Mike and Donna Cox sat in their car on North Gazley Road with a mix of emotions as smoke and flames from the Milepost 97 Fire turned the dusk sky near Canyonville into a mixture of orange and red.
“This is awful,” Donna Cox said.
The Milepost 97 Fire burned about 750 acres of steep, rocky terrain southeast of Canyonville in less than 24 hours, and then doubled in size Thursday night to 1,650 acres, according to the Douglas Forest Protective Association.
The fire, located about one mile outside of the city and along Interstate 5, was originally reported at approximately 10 p.m. Wednesday and is believed to have begun because of an illegal campfire, according to Kyle Reed, a DFPA spokesman.
Mike and Donna Cox expressed anger over the possible cause of the fire and worry for an elderly friend, said to live in a home about a quarter of a mile ahead of the fire.
“So we’re concerned for her,” Donna Cox said.
Some Canyonvile residents were warned Thursday afternoon that evacuations might be necessary. A few hours later, residents of three homes in the 100-300 block of Ritchie Road were given an official evacuation notice from the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office.
“We strongly urge residents to leave their homes in the affected area as fire officials have determined there is a significant public safety risk,” said Brad O’Dell, a spokesman for the sheriff’s office, in a press release.
Fire departments that specialize in fighting structure fires have been dispatched to the area to provide protection to the endangered homes, Reed said.
Although flames and smoke are highly visible from Canyonville, Riddle and Azalea, Reed said the fire does not pose a direct threat to those communities at this time.
For a time Thursday, the fire threatened two radio towers on top of Canyon Mountain. Air tankers and helicopters with water buckets made repeated runs to save the two towers. By Friday morning, the towers were intact. Reed said maintaining the towers is critical. Both the county and DFPA use them for communication. The DFPA also has a fire detection camera on the mountain.
The blaze made a significant push Thursday afternoon because of hot temperatures, low relative humidity and gusty winds, Reed said. Overnight conditions proved explosive as the fire continued to spread into the night, more than doubling in size.
The fire had moved into a patch of land that burned in the late 1980s from a lightning fire and has a significant amount of dead trees and heavy brush, Reed said. Crews worked on the fire Wednesday night, but were limited in where they could safely work due to rolling rocks and falling trees, Reed said.
“There’s a heavy fuel load in the area,” Reed said. “When you have the light flashy fuels from the grasses and the brush combined with the heavy fuel loading of the standing dead trees and trees that have fallen over the years, it’s very difficult to fight fire in those conditions.”
He said road access in the area is minimal, which forces firefighters to hike in and prevents engines and dozers from accessing the fire.
This is peak fire season, and while the heat is making efforts difficult, Reed said it’s lucky temperatures aren’t in the 100s.
More than 200 firefighters are currently working on fighting the fire and additional hand crews are expected to arrive on Friday.
The fire has been burning private, Bureau of Land Management and Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe of Indians land.
DFPA crews were pulled away from the Milepost 97 Fire Thursday evening to suppress two natural cover fires located about 10 miles southwest of Winston near Ben Irving Reservoir. Two helicopters and firefighters with the Tenmile Rural Fire Department and the Winston–Dillard Fire Department responded to the Berry Creek fires burning about a half an acre of grass, brush and young trees. Reed said crews wanted to extinguish the fire quickly so resources could return to the larger fire near Canyonville. Crews mopped up hotspots until 11:30 p.m and returned to check the area Friday morning.
An Oregon Department of Forestry Incident Management Team was ordered to assist fighting the Milepost 97 Fire Thursday. ODF crews arrived Friday morning and were briefed by DFPA in the afternoon. The management team assumes command of the fire at 6 p.m. Friday.
Interstate 5 remains open in both directions, according to the Oregon Department of Transportation, but the off-ramp at Exit 95, the Canyon Creek exit, has been closed because of the fire. The northbound off-ramp has been closed since last week because of road construction. Both on-ramps at Exit 95 remain open; however, motorists should use caution and expect smoky conditions.
Air quality in places like Ashland, Grants Pass, Medford and other Southern Oregon towns was listed as unhealthy Friday morning, meaning people with heart and lung diseases, older adults and children should avoid prolonged or heavy exertion, according to the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality. Everyone else should reduce their activity.