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'Complicated' Milepost 97 Fire Draws Hundreds To Community Meeting

By Emily Cureton (OPB)
Glendale, Ore. July 29, 2019 1:15 p.m.

UPDATE (8:55 a.m. PT, Monday, July 29, 2019) —

What began as an illegal campfire exploded across Douglas County, Oregon, late last week, burning 11,000 acres in its first four days.

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People in the Oregon communities of Glendale and Azalea were preparing to evacuate Sunday night.

More than 500 people gathered at a community meeting at Glendale High School in Douglas County, Ore., to discuss the Milepost 97 fire, Sunday, July 28, 2019.

More than 500 people gathered at a community meeting at Glendale High School in Douglas County, Ore., to discuss the Milepost 97 fire, Sunday, July 28, 2019.

Emily Cureton / OPB

“My husband’s ashes are in the car,” said Julie Thompson.

She was among more than 500 people who crowded into the Glendale High School gym Sunday — a huge turnout for a town with a population of 887. They came to listen to fire managers and ask how bad things might get.

As of 10 p.m. Sunday, the Milepost 97 Fire threatened 586 structures and critical infrastructure.

“We have a major highway artery, Interstate 5, power lines that serve Medford and Grants Pass, and we have a natural gas pipeline through the heart of this fire. To the north are the communications that serve Douglas County’s southern end, the sheriff and the 911 system … [and] a water intake supply for the City of Canyonville,” explained Douglas Forest Protective Association District Manager Patrick Skrip.

“It doesn’t get much more complicated than this.”

The agency first responded to a quarter-acre blaze Wednesday night.

“We were on that in the first 15 minutes,” Skrip told the crowd. “There were more dead trees in that fire area than there were live,” he added.

Related: Taking I-5 Through Southern Oregon? Expect Delays Due To Milepost 97 Fire

Local fire districts and air attacks failed to contain the blaze growing quickly among snags left from a previous wildfire in 1987. So, Skrip said a larger team for the Oregon Department of Forestry mobilized. At least five firefighters had been injured as of early Monday morning, according to ODF.

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"We've had falling material actually hit firefighters. We've had them trip and fall in this very steep ground," ODF spokesman Tom Fields said. "There are all kinds of hazards out there, and then you've got the freeway and on top of it, that we have to dodge while we're working out there.”

As of Monday morning, the governor had not declared a conflagration to send in more firefighters and specialists from other parts of the state.

The fire has affected Interstate 5, slowing traffic due to limited visibility and drivers who slow down to look at the fire. A lane was closed near the fire on Sunday.

The interstate also helps firefighting efforts as a barrier on one of its flanks.

Smoke limits visibility on Interstate 5 near the Quines Creek Road exit, 12 miles south of Canyonville, Ore., July 27 2019.

Smoke limits visibility on Interstate 5 near the Quines Creek Road exit, 12 miles south of Canyonville, Ore., July 27 2019.

Jes Burns / OPB

“We have a lot of tough days of firefighting ahead of us. But we’ve got a lot of good people out on the ground,” said ODF operations section chief Aaron Whiteley.

People in the gym began to sweat as the meeting went on Sunday evening. They sat on wooden bleachers, without air conditioning. Some attendees fanned themselves with copies of the fire map distributed at the meeting. It showed burned areas managed by the Bureau of Land Management as O&C lands, tracts held in trust for the Cow Creek Tribe by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Oregon state forestry lands, and private property.

“This is a full suppression incident. We’re not managing fire, we’re not allowing things to burn. We know the values at risk out there. And we are giving this thing everything we have to try and put it out,” said Link Smith, the incident commander for the ODF team.

“What’s the worst-case scenario?” someone in the crowd asked him.

“That's a difficult one,” Smith replied. “Things can go wrong. Bottom line is you don't have to look very far back to remember the Douglas Complex [Fire] ended up at 40,000 some acres. A lot of smoke was eaten in those days."

Glendale Mayor Adam Jones told OPB he thinks those fires in 2013 made the town ready. “It was a bit of a wake-up call and people prepared pretty heavily after that,” Jones said.

The word Paradise equates to fear for Merissa Briggs of Glendale. At least 85 people died in fires that ripped through the northern California town last year.

Julie Thompson (center) talks to her 4-year-old niece Charisma as they share bleacher seats with Charisma's mom, Merissa Biggs, and her 2-year-old brother Keeneye, Sunday, July 28, 2019. They were among 500 people who attended a community meeting on the fast-moving Milepost 97 Fire.

Julie Thompson (center) talks to her 4-year-old niece Charisma as they share bleacher seats with Charisma's mom, Merissa Biggs, and her 2-year-old brother Keeneye, Sunday, July 28, 2019. They were among 500 people who attended a community meeting on the fast-moving Milepost 97 Fire.

Emily Cureton / OPB

Biggs said she had camping gear and important things in the car, “ready to go at a moment’s notice.”

Her 4-year-old daughter Charisma Dulong chimed in: “We live next to a fire.” Then, the little girl explained what she planned to bring, “my toothbrush, my toothpaste and my stick horse.”

The stick horse wasn’t in the family’s car yet, Biggs said, but it will be.

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