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As Smith River Complex grows, dangerous weather prompts additional concerns

The Smith River Complex wildfire on Aug 24, 2023.
Bill Steven
The Smith River Complex wildfire on Aug 24, 2023.

The largest wildfire in the continental U.S. has grown to over 50,000 acres along the Oregon/California border. Dangerous weather conditions in the coming days could pose a challenge for firefighters.

The Smith River Complex has been burning on both sides of Highway 199 between Crescent City and Cave Junction. The highway has been closed for almost a week, with no estimated reopening, according to CalTrans. Travel is restricted in both directions starting at milepost 36 in O’Brien, according to the Oregon Department of Transportation.

The Oregon State Fire Marshal has sent crews to help contain the fire. A total of 1,419 resources have been deployed to the complex. That includes hand crews, fire engines and aerial resources.

Randall Rishe, public information officer with Smith River Complex North, said heavy and erratic winds, coupled with forecast lightning storms, will only make their job harder in the next few days.

“It will be a watch-out situation,” Rishe said. “We hope that the community will be fully engaged with our information sharing so they are aware of what the weather’s doing, they are aware of the evacuation notices that the county sheriff’s are establishing and what the firefighters are doing on the ground for their protection.”

The National Weather Service has issued a weather advisory, which says scattered thunderstorms will be moving across the Illinois Valley on Thursday evening. Dense smoke in the area will also make it difficult to spot where the thunderstorm is moving.

The fire has crept across the Oregon-California border in recent days and some smaller communities are under evacuation warnings. The community of O'Brien, on Highway 199 south of mile post 38 to the California border, is under a level three "go now" evacuation alert. The communities of of O’Brien and Takilma are currently under a level two “be set ” warning, from Rough and Ready Creek to mile post 38 and Rockydale at Waldo Road to the California Border. Communities south of the California border including Gasquet are under mandatory evacuations. The Southern Illinois Valley, south of Cave Junction, including Bridgeview and the Holland Loop Area, are under a level one "be ready" notice.

The fire resulted in a widespread power shutoff in the Crescent City area last Friday, Aug. 18. Many residents now have temporary power, though the main transmission line has yet to be re-energized.

On Thursday, the Bureau of Land Management closed public lands from O’Brien to the California border because of the fire.

Fire crews are currently creating buffer zones to reduce fuels near homes that are threatened. They’re also building multiple lines of defense against the fire, and using air resources to restrict the fire’s progress to the north.

Rishe said the rugged and steep terrain on either side of Highway 199 make fighting the fire difficult, but that previous fires in the region have helped fire crews to develop a plan for fighting this one.

“I, myself, have fought fire in this area,” he said. “Around here we’ve had Biscuit, Chetco, Klondike. Now we’ve got Smith River; there’s a number of other fires in this area. And we’ve learned lessons from those.”

Roman Battaglia is a regional reporter for Jefferson Public Radio. 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 JPR newsroom.
Ella Hutcherson was a 2023 Charles Snowden Program for Excellence in Journalism Intern at JPR after she graduated from the University of Oregon. She grew up in Coos Bay, Oregon and now produces freelance stories for JPR. Previously, Ella worked as education reporter for the Eugene Weekly and she was the managing editor of the UO student-run Ethos Magazine.