Oakridge-area fires fill valley with smoke, close roads and trails

Oakridge-area fires fill valley with smoke, close roads and trails

OAKRIDGE, Ore. - Smoke from fires burning near Oakridge pushed air quality in Eugene and Springfield down into the moderate category Monday as firefighters continued to burn forest debris and other fuels ahead of the fires in the Buckhead Complex.

Meanwhile, firefighting activity forced land managers to close another mountain bike trail in the Mountain Biking Capital of Oregon.

Air quality improved a little Monday over Sunday. Air quality in Oakridge itself was actually better than in the interior valley as smoke exits the region.

“Until the fires are contained, we will see periodic intrusions of smoke into the valley,” says Sally Markos, spokesperson for the Lane Regional Air Protection Agency.

Much of the smoke came from firefighting activity, as crews intentionally set controlled fires.

“Our goal is to continue doing exactly what the fire was already doing, burning the lower fuels on the ground, not torching trees," said John Poet, the Buckhead Complex incident commander. "But we need to accelerate the process a little to take full advantage of the lower temperatures and higher humidities that we’ve been experiencing."

Weather forecasts predict warmer and drier weather later this week.

The growth of the fires on Sunday was due primarily to the burnout operations on the Buckhead and Evangeline fires. 

Firefighters working on the Buckhead Fire have built a perimeter around the fire, and they are burning the lower fuels on the ground. "They're waiting until the wind is right, until the relative humidity is at the right point and they'll ignite the fuels between where the fire is now and where they're gonna stop it," said Buckhead Complex Public Information Officer Tom Berglund.

The steepness of the slopes makes firelines ineffective, so the burnout activity burns up debris in a controlled fashion, creating a "fire break" for firefighters to defend.

Jose Mercado is the division supervisor for the Buckhead Fire. "We're not going into the fire directly. We're bringing it out to a road where we can actually put engines and personnel working in a contained environment," said Mercado.

The fire and firefighting activities have forced some closures of public lands.

The lower segment of the Alpine trail remains closed, and the closure was extended to a portion of the North Fork Trail. That still leaves hundreds of miles of trails open for this coming weekend's Mountain Bike Oregon event.

Berglund says firefighters are dealing with issues besides the fire. "The fire behavior has been pretty moderate, but it's the conditions we've had. We've had bee stings in the eye, we've had scorpions, poisin oak," he said.

Road 19, the paved road that parallels the North Fork Middle Fork Willamette River, is still open for traffic, but stopping or parking is prohibited for a 13-mile stretch. The closed-to-parking area starts at the covered bridge at milepost 3.1 and continues upstream to Road 1926, which is at milepost 16. 

“We realize that the prohibition of parking along Rd 19  and the closure of trails are impacting recreationists, and we will do everything we can to remove the closures as soon as safety allows,” said Poet.

Almost 300 people are assigned to fight the fire from land and air.