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A city in three days: how Oregon's largest wildfire is managed

Two rows of beige yurts sit in a field in the sun. Each yurt has a sign on it describing what office is inside.
Roman Battaglia
Jefferson Public Radio
The Rum Creek fire camp in Merlin, Ore.

Firefighters are battling Oregon’s largest active wildfire in rough terrain northwest of Grants Pass. Jefferson Public Radio visited the fire camp to find out how a team of nearly 2,000 gets organized.

Three separate firefighting agencies are working together on the nearly 17,000-acre Rum Creek Fire, northwest of Grants Pass: Northwest Incident Management Team 13, the Oregon Department of Forestry and the Oregon State Fire Marshal.

Teams are currently focusing on the eastern edge of the fire, which is spreading the fastest. That area threatens the rural communities of Merlin and Pleasant Valley, parts of which are on level 1 evacuation status.

A lot of thought goes into picking a spot for a fire camp, according to Sandy Roberts, public information officer for the Oregon State Fire Marshal.

“If we go into an area where a fire hasn’t been, we really look at what’s already there,” Roberts says. “In the summertime, schools aren’t in session. I’ve had fire camp at high schools, middle schools, I’ve been on a football field, that’s where my tent is pitched.”

For this fire, the teams chose a plot of Bureau of Land Management land in Merlin that’s been used as a fire camp in the past.

Roberts says the camp needs to be far enough away so they don’t need to evacuate if the fire gets too close, but close enough so it isn’t too far to drive to the fire line.

She recalls a time when teams were fighting fires near Oakridge, and the fire camp was set up at a school. When school started up and the building was needed, the next nearest site the team could use was in Eugene. Roberts says it's difficult to manage a fire when you’re so far away.

Roberts says it typically takes around three days to get the basics of a fire camp set up. She says when agencies arrive, they need to be ready to be self-sufficient for 72-hours as the camp gets built.

Along the so-called “main street” of fire camp, one of the major structures is Incident Management Command, where officials plan which locations on the fire to send resources to.

Roberts says despite having three incident commanders giving the final orders, organizing the plan of attack is generally pretty easy.

“It’s important to have that consensus,” she says. “Sometimes it’s amazing to have other people to push your ideas off onto. And to run those ideas by somebody else. Three heads are better than one.”

This Cerberus-style leadership is working to send fire crews where needed. So far, they’ve been able to create a defensible zone of 200-feet around all the homes in and around Galice, a small town on the southern edge of the fire.

Roberts expects firefighting conditions to become more difficult into the weekend, as a cold front moves into the area late Friday, bringing gusty winds that could fan the flames.

Weather forecasters are hoping once the cold front moves through the area, conditions will stabilize on Saturday.

After graduating from Oregon State University, Roman came to JPR as part of the Charles Snowden Program for Excellence in Journalism in 2019. He then joined Delaware Public Media as a Report For America fellow before returning to the west coast.