Jessica Cejnar Andrews / Friday, Sept. 1, 2023 @ 7:54 p.m. / Emergencies, Fire

Weather Change Aids New Incident Command Team Working Smith River Complex; Residents Return Home

A hotshot crew conducts firing operations Monday on the southern part of the Kelly Fire. | Photo courtesy of Inciweb

No one has lost their lives as a result of the Smith River Complex, but the wildfires did claim more than 11 or 12 structures including two “official residences,” Del Norte County Sheriff Garrett Scott said Friday.

Speaking at the fourth community meeting held since lighting sparked the fires on Aug. 15, Scott said multiple off-grid homes, including small cabins and RVs were damaged. He said he inspected those homes personally and saw clothing and other signs that people were living in them, but no one was in them.

“There were about 10 that I consider structures — they were fairly permanent homes with people living in them,” Scott said. “I do feel like we’re going to end up with small cabins — I wouldn’t want to say illegal, but just people living off grid back there with no address — it will be difficult to figure out who owns (them), but it’s a sad sight.”

The day after Gasquet residents were given the green light to return to their homes, they and other Del Norters met Southwest Incident Management Team 2 officials for the first time. Led by Incident Commander Dave Bales, the new incident management team assumed command on Thursday hours before the California Highway Patrol opened U.S. 199 to commercial traffic.

Residents in the Little Jones Creek and Washington Flat residential areas were also able to return to their homes, though U.S. 199 is still closed at Pioneer Road for non-residents.

“It’s a little scary. There’s a lot going on,” Scott said. “But I’d like to see people get home as soon as they possibly can and we’ll continue to protect them.”

The Smith River Complex has burned 83,974 acres as of Friday afternoon and is 9 percent contained, according to Incident Management Team 2 Public Information Officer Bill Morse.

Minimal fire weather conditions, including 100 percent relative humidity, brought a flash flood warning to the burn areas, but put a lid on the flames, allowing the 3,031 firefighters to get out ahead, Fire Behavior Analyst Dan Pearson said.

Over the next 24 to 48 hours, a decent potential for rain, light winds and a marine influence will continue to dampen the flames, Pearson said, allowing fire crews to secure containment lines and find additional hot spots. That work will be important as Del Norte enters a warming and drying trend later in the week, Pearson said.

“We’re not looking at a significant fire weather event showing up when the rain passes through the area,” he said. “But it will allow fuels, which is what drive the fire, to dry down again. In a nutshell, you’ll see less smoke, less fire behavior and then a slow gradual increase.”

Though the O’Brien community is under a Level 3 “Go Now” evacuation order, California Highway Patrol commander, Lt. Pete Roach, said he’s hoping U.S. 199 will be open to all traffic on Monday. Roach said the CHP is currently working with Oregon State Police, the Oregon Department of Transportation, Pacific Northwest Incident Management Team 13, which is commanding the northern part of the Smith River Complex, Scott and his Josephine County counterpart, Dave Daniel, to reopen the highway.

Currently, Roach said, a Caltrans plow is stationed at Patrick Creek Lodge ready to take commercial vehicles, those delivering goods and services into and out of Del Norte County, including logging trucks, through the narrows. That Caltrans plow is piloting commercial traffic from Patrick Creek, past the Idlewild Maintenance Station to Knopke Creek Road, Roach said.

More CHP vehicles are stationed at Collier Tunnel, he said.
As people continue to return home, Bales asked them to realize more than 3,000 firefighters are still in their communities and will be for some time.

As they meet the firefighters working under their command, Morse said one of his favorite stories came from an engine crew doing structure protection in Gasquet.

“With the rain and the limited fire behavior, rather than being set up for fire pushing into the community, they were emptying people’s refrigerators and dumping things into the dumpster for the last two days,” he said. “In fact, a firefighter told me that he was fixing a lady’s lawn mower and they are emptying trash. I’m not saying expect that and call on them to do your refrigerator, but they’re here to help. We’re all just here to help.”


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