Throwback: Klondike Fire the last standing of July 15 lightning-caused wildfires

The Klondike Fire was among a flurry of wildfires that began during a lightning storm on July 15 and would be the last of those fires remaining.

Posted: Nov 30, 2018 2:59 PM
Updated: Jul 15, 2019 2:51 PM

Note: On July 15, 2018, dry thunderstorms across southern Oregon and northern California sparked hundreds of fires. Some of them were contained quickly, while others grew to consume thousands of acres, threatening lives and property. The story below is about the last of those fires, finally declared contained months later.

MEDFORD, Ore. — Of the many wildfires in Southern Oregon started by lightning strikes on July 15, the Klondike Fire at first appeared to be low-priority, but would grow to become one of the most threatening of those fires at 175,528 acres — encroaching on the communities of Selma and Agness. Now the fire is officially 100 percent contained, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

“We are pleased to report at this time that there is no Level 1 evacuation status and no closures in place for Taylor/Klondike. Southwest Oregon is enjoying clear skies with only occasional smoke impacts associated with our fall/winter prescribed burning program,” said Fire Staff Officer Eric Hensel.

When the fire began in July, it was fairly small and remote compared to other wildfires that directly threatened homes in the area — namely the Hendrix, Garner Complex, and Taylor Creek and Miles fires, all of which prompted evacuation orders in the days immediately following the July 15 storm.

However, as firefighting operations continued in earnest on those other fires, the largely unimpeded Klondike Fire became the greatest remaining threat to lives and property in Southern Oregon as it expanded both to the east and west.

"Like the Silver Fire (1987) and Biscuit Fire (2002) which preceded it, the Klondike Fire was extremely difficult to suppress due to its location in the very steep and rugged terrain in and around the Kalmiopsis Wilderness," USDA said in a statement. "This, in combination with heavy fuel loading, limited road access and virtually no escape routes or safety zones for firefighters to retreat to when the fire became active, posed significant challenges to firefighters both on the ground and in the air."

RELATED: Visit our FireWatch section for stories on how the 2018 Fire Season has shaped preparations for this year.

USDA says that the rugged terrain proved a challenge for the larger air tankers to make "safe and effective approaches" for retardant drops on the fire. Moreover, particularly at its beginning, the fire's remote location in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness was near impossible for firefighters on the ground to reach.

“Air resources have their limits and the terrain will dictate some of those limitations. The Kalmiopsis Wilderness is a very challenging location to fight fire,” said Forest Aviation Officer Amanda Lucas-Rice.

Ultimately, the Klondike Fire cost more than $104 million for firefighting teams to suppress and contain. Comparatively, the nearby Taylor Creek Fire was declared contained in early October, burning 53,000 acres and costing $24 million.

“Our biggest success this year is the fact that everyone who came to help us returned home to their families and no residents were hurt. Our thoughts and prayers are with those communities and families who weren’t so fortunate this year,” said Forest Supervisor Merv George.

Despite the fire's containment, Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER) activities will continue within the Klondike Fire area to limit the ecological damage of the fire and reduce the chances for erosion and landslides.

USDA also reports "good progress" on road work, with an estimated 80 percent of the work completed in the Illinois River corridor out to the Josephine County Oak Flat residences. Some work was started in the Pearsoll Peak area but weather has been limiting access. Current work is occurring on Forest Road 2512 from Sam Brown Campground up to Flat Top.

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