Jessica Cejnar Andrews / Friday, Aug. 25, 2023 @ 12:44 p.m.

Thunderstorm Brings Lightning, Winds to the Oregon Side of the Smith River Complex; Del Norte Dodges Bullet, Fire Spokesman Says

Fire engines line the road near Ward Field in Gasquet on Thursday. | Photo from Inciweb

Del Norte County had a lucky escape Thursday evening.

Instead of bringing dry lightning and erratic winds, a fast-moving thunderstorm dropped rain and created an inversion that helped dampen the flames at the Smith River Complex fire near Gasquet.

“The quick and dirty is we dodged a bullet here,” California Incident Management Team 15 spokesman Tom Engberg told the Wild Rivers Outpost on Friday, adding that about a tenth of an inch of rain dropped near the Camp Six repeater site. “We don’t have any reports of anything major that happened lightning-wise from the event we went through, but we do know the north complex was hit with lightning. We don’t know how severe it was, but we know it took some weather up there.”

Winds pushed the Kelly Fire into Josephine County, triggering a level 3 “Go Now” evacuation order for U.S. 199 south of O’Brien to the California border. The area between O’Brien and Takilma is at a Level 2 “Get Set” evacuation order. Residents north to Cave Junction received a Level 1 “Get Ready” evacuation order, according to a Smith River Complex North update for Friday.

The American Red Cross has set up an evacuation shelter for at Rogue Community College in Grants Pass for Oregon fire victims. Livestock can find shelter at the Josephine County Fairgrounds.

U.S. 199 is closed between Lone Mountain Road in O’Brien to the state line due to the wildfire, according to the Oregon Department of Transportation. When the road reopens depends on fire activity, ODOT PIO Julie Denney said.

Tentative plans by Caltrans and the California Highway Patrol to caravan traffic through the 199 corridor twice a day starting Monday also depends on fire activity, Denney said.

“We’re in contact with Caltrans and once any decisions ar emade or we have updates on the closures on the Oregon side anyway, we’ll send a Flash Alert and we’ll keep the Trip Check map updated,” she said.

The Smith River Complex has been mapped at a total of 57,225 acres, Engberg said, with the Kelly Fire coming in at 40,017 acres. A total of 1,655 firefighters are battling the flames with more resources inbound, Engberg said.

Two structures were confirmed to be lost, though Engberg didn’t have information on whether they were homes or other types of buildings. Residents between Slant Bridge and the Oregon border, including those in Gasquet, on French Hill Road and in the community of Sunstar, are still unable to return to their homes.

“The town is being protected,” Engberg said of Gasquet. “The town is being prepped by firefighters — they’re doing structure protection, hose lay, all sorts of protection in and around the town of Gasquet. There is no active fire around it right now.”

Meanwhile, Pacific Power has brought electricity to nearly 11,000 Del Norte County customers by plugging large generators into their substations as of Friday, according to a news release.
Because of the wildfire activity, Pacific Power says it’s unsafe to re-energize the transmission line serving Del Norte County.

The utility set up two community resource centers that are open 8 a.m.-10 p.m. at Del Norte High School and at the Yurok Tribal building in Klamath. For more information, click here.

On Friday, Bill Steven, Del Norte Office of Emergency Services public information officer, said Smith River and Klamath residents should have power by noon.

“One of the listeners on the radio (asked), ‘How big are these generators?’ And so we asked and they put a couple of pictures on Facebook,” Steven told the Outpost. “You’re familiar with a tractor trailer configuration. Well the trailer’s the generator, the whole trailer. We have more than one of those floating around the county.”
Steven pointed out that while Del Norte has weathered its share of emergencies — the 2011 tsunami, which resulted in the area around the harbor being evacuated, and a handful of floods — rarely has something affected the entire county. The community has dealt with a difficult situation brilliantly, he said.

“People were letting strangers into their house to take showers,” Steven said. “A friend of mine had his son, Cooper Maxwell; he was carrying five-gallon buckets of water to their neighbor’s house so they could flush their toilets. You had people helping people on that level just out of the goodness of their heart.”

According to Engberg, more resources are inbound to the Smith River Complex. He’s hoping the inversion lift and smoke will clear out, enabling air resources to drop retardant on the flames.

Currently, the focus is on structure protection around Gasquet, Engberg said.

“We’re appreciative of the community being so supportive and patient,” he said. “We understand it’s a difficult situation. Very challenging. We want everyone to know we’re doing our best to make sure we can ensure the public is going back to a safe area.”


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