Southwest Oregon and Northwest California — a hotbed of fire activity for at least 20 years

map history of fires in Northwest California and Southwest Oregon
A partial history of fires in Northwest California and Southwest Oregon, 2000 through Sept 17, 2020.

The Northwest California/Southwest Oregon area has kept firefighters very busy at times during the last 20 years, as you can see on the map above.

A new fire is rapidly putting itself into that history. The Slater Fire reported September 8 grew to 89,000 acres by September 9 and has now spread to 150,000 acres. That growth, however, has slowed in the last several days.

It started northeast of Happy Camp, California and ran north into Oregon then took a left and crossed Highway 199. It has come to within about four miles of the 2002 Biscuit Fire.

If recent fire history is any indication, the Slater Fire may not even slow down when and if it reaches the Biscuit burn, and of course it depends on the weather, which has moderated this week. The 2017 Chetco Bar Fire and the 2018 Klondike Fire burned for miles into the then 17 or 18-year old fire scar. The entire eastern two-thirds of the Chetco Bar Fire was in the footprint.

Strong winds that drove the dozens of fires September 8 in Oregon are not super rare. The Klondike Fire west of Grants Pass started July 15, 2018. In early October it had become virtually dormant, but a few hot spots were revitalized by an east wind event on the 14th. According to an article in the Mail Tribune the suddenly vigorous fire was transporting burning embers that started spot fires six miles out ahead of the flaming front:

“Extreme spotting” propelled fine embers up to six miles ahead of the main fire, dropping the live ash right between firefighters’ tents and close to people’s homes.

“We even had to move our own fire camp,”  [information officer Kale] Casey said.

So if the weather this year is anything like it was two years ago, firefighters could be busy in the area for at least another month.

Slater Fire
Slater Fire, Sept. 15, 2020. InciWeb.

Chetco Bar Fire in Oregon quadruples in four days, approaches 100,000 acres

Above: Chetco Bar Fire August 17, 2017. Inciweb.

(Originally published at 9:35 a.m. PDT August 22, 2017)

On July 13, 2002 the Biscuit Fire started in southwest Oregon. Under a limited suppression strategy 7,000 workers fought the fire as it spread into California. By November it had burned up nearly 500,000 acres and $150 million, becoming one of the largest wildfires in the recent history of the 48 contiguous states.

Chetco Bar Fire satellite photo
Satellite photo of smoke from the Chetco Bar Fire, August 20, 2017. The red dots represent heat detected by a satellite. Note that the smoke from the fire is a different color from the other fires in the area to the southeast and northeast.

This summer another very large wildfire, the Chetco Bar Fire, is burning partially in the footprints of the Biscuit and another nearby blaze, the 1987 Silver Fire. Also under a limited suppression strategy, the 788 personnel assigned today are faced with the steep slopes in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness as well as brush and dangerous snags left in the previously burned areas.

Evacuations are in effect and Curry County Sheriff’s Office says at least five homes have been destroyed by the fire.

map Chetco Bar Fire
The red line was the perimeter of the Chetco Bar Fire at 2:30 a.m. PDT August 22, 2017. The white line was the perimeter on August 18, 2017.

The Phoenix National Incident Management Organization (NIMO) Team with Incident Commander Bob Houseman, on the fire since July 29, explains their task:

Because of the risk to firefighter safety, low probability of success of a direct attack strategy and minimal values at risk, fire personnel are currently focused on constructing contingency lines, conducting reconnaissance for access, scouting safe entry points, locating natural features for containment opportunities, protecting wilderness values and developing a long term plan for safely engaging the fire.

On August 18 at 4 p.m. the Chetco Bar Fire covered 22,042 acres. Early Tuesday morning August 22 it was mapped at 97,758 acres, approaching the 100,000-acre threshold of becoming a “megafire”.

Map of the 2002 Biscuit Fire
Map of the 2002 Biscuit Fire, by Oregon Business.

For the last several days it has been spreading rapidly to the southwest growing to within five miles of Brookings, a community on the Pacific coast. It is 14 miles southeast of Gold Beach.

The Team is using a mixture of direct, indirect and point protection tactics when and where they expect there is a high probability of success. The fire is burning in areas of fire scar and islands that were previously unburned, as well as areas west of the previous fires. The combination of down and dead fuels in the old burns and newly cured grass adds complexity for firefighters.

satellite photo Biscuit Fire
Satellite photo of the Biscuit Fire on September 1, 2002. Jacques Descloitres, MODIS Rapid Response Team, NASA/GSFC.

Buckskin Fire burning in footprint of 2002 Biscuit Fire

(UPDATE at 7:04 a.m. PT, June 15, 2015)

Buckskin Fire
Buckskin Fire on June 14, 2015. Photo by Kris Sherman.

The Buckskin Fire 10 miles southwest of Cave Junction, Oregon spread east Sunday across Baldface Creek and grew to 1,400 acres. Firefighters are  improving existing trails on the west side of the fire for a potential contingency containment line. Ten helitack and four rappellers were flown to the spot fires southwest of the main fire and constructed direct fireline, assisted by water drops from helicopters.

Firefighters are staying in remote spike camps close to the fire in order to reduce travel time and increase productivity.

The Buckskin Fire is burning in an area scorched by the Biscuit Fire that burned half a million acres in 2002.

Map of Buckskin Fire
Map showing the location of heat detected by a satellite on the Buckskin Fire, 12:32 a.m. June 15, 2015. The red squares are the most recent. (click to enlarge)


(UPDATE at 9:31 p.m. PT, June 13, 2015)

Buckskin Fire
Buckskin Fire, afternoon of June 13, 2015. MODIS.

The Buckskin Fire southwest of Cave Junction, Oregon was pushed by winds Saturday that varied from the northwest to the northeast causing the fire to spread on the southeast and southwest sides. As you can see in the satellite image above, the transport wind was consistently from the northeast.

The Crazy Peak weather station 13 miles southeast of the fire recorded winds Saturday afternoon of 2 to 3 mph with the highest gust being 9. The RH was in the 20s and the temperature was in the 70s. This is not, at least at that weather station, extreme fire weather, but apparently the Buckskin Fire spread easily through the footprint of the  2002 Biscuit Fire.

The Quail Prairie weather station 14 miles northeast of the fire recorded stronger winds on Saturday, 8 to 12 mph gusting up to 18 mph, with a low RH of 18% and temperatures in the mid-80s. It showed consistent north-northeast winds Saturday afternoon which jives with the satellite image above showing the  smoke plume drifting to the southwest.


(Originally published at 12:59 p.m. PT, June 13, 2015)

Buckskin Fire
The Buckskin Fire, shortly after the Siskiyou Rappel Crew arrived the day the was reported on June 11. Photo by Michael Bobic.

A wildfire in southwest Oregon is bringing back memories of a huge fire that burned the same area 13 years ago. The Biscuit Fire burned half a million acres in 2002 leaving a forest of snags — dead trees that are now burning in a new fire, the Buckskin Fire.

Firefighters are loath to fight fire in a snag forest because the tree skeletons burn through readily and frequently — crashing to the ground creating a very hazardous situation for anyone in the wrong place at the wrong time. Snags kill firefighters.

Map of Buckskin Fire
Map showing the location of the Buckskin Fire in southwest Oregon at 5 a.m. on June 13, 2015. The red, brown, and yellow squares represent heat detected by a satellite. The fire is in the center of the brown footprint of the 2002 Biscuit Fire.

The fire has burned about 1,200 acres 10 miles southwest of Cave Junction, Oregon, and five miles north of the California border. From the satellite photo above, it appears to be in the center of the old Biscuit Fire.

Firefighters are assessing the situation, contemplating strategies for the fire on steep slopes with an abundance of snags. Conventional direct tactics, constructing firelines on the edge of the burning area, may not be feasible because of the hazards of falling trees. Adding to the already complex situation is the weather — a Red Flag Warning for the area is in effect for Saturday and Sunday. A local 10-person fire crew is monitoring the fire growth and scouting options for placement of containment lines. The plan is for full suppression of the fire.

Doug Johnson’s Type 2 Incident Management Team assumed command Saturday morning.

Buckskin Fire
Buckskin Fire, unknown date. Photo by Brandon Colville.