Acrid smoke from the nearly 5,000-acre Whitewater fire cast a haze around Detroit Lake Friday morning as pairs of hikers, who hoped to hop onto the Pacific Crest trail, walked the shoulder of Highway 22 after being rerouted by the smoke and flames.

The Linn County Sheriff's Posse and Search and Rescue cadre were on hand early to evacuate campers and hikers, but later shifted to the more persuasive role of conducting safety sweeps, which amounted to encouraging people to leave or avoid the area.

Linn County Lieutenant Joe Larsen said he had six ground teams along with four Posse members and volunteers from the Amateur Radio Emergency Services group on hand.

With the fire nearby and talk of evacuation, business at the nearby Marion Forks Restaurant was slow, said breakfast cook Cara Knoles. 

"They're all going," she said of visitors passing through. "They're not staying."

Knoles said two loggers who had spent the night cutting fire line came in to eat that morning. She also said there was talk of a possible evacuation, but word had not yet come down. 

The fire started after a June 24 lightning strike left a lone tree smoldering for more than a month near the Whitewater trail head in the Jefferson Wilderness Area. Dry conditions and fanning winds on July 30 kicked off the embers and ignited a blaze that initially attracted a small crew of about 12 firefighters, known as a Type 3 team, which takes a lighter touch within the wilderness area.

But the fire grew to 3,000 acres by Tuesday, Aug. 1, and officials with Willamette National Forest ordered a Type 2 team, bringing more than 200 personnel to bear as it threatened to move outside the wilderness boundaries.

The fire had grown to about 4,800 acres by Friday.

"At first we were cutting 18-inch fire lines and dumping water on the fire with helicopters," said Oregon Department of Forestry biomass specialist Marcus Kauffman. He said the team next came to realize that, should the fire break out and threaten to leave the wilderness, they would need a contingency plan. 

"We're going to deprive the fire of fuel," said Kauffman, describing the new strategy, which employs an indirect approach by removing fuel sources and reinforcing the fire lines, creating a box around the fire and letting it burn out.

To do this, they're not only using hand crews to cut line, but mechanized timber harvesters that grip and then slice through large trunks, dropping 60-foot trees like sticks within a few seconds.

"If we'd had a hand crew in there they might get one or two trees down in the time we've been here," said Task Force Leader Aaron McDowell.

Other efforts involve grinding up brush along roadsides with drum and blade spinners that turn the otherwise combustible material to small bits of debris, depriving the fire of "ladder fuels," which allow flames to climb up to the crowns of the trees.

"If we can keep the flame lengths low, then we can get on top of them better," said Kauffman.

Overhead, helicopters ferried massive buckets of water to the fire, dousing the flames. But even with that, Kauffman said nothing is assured.

"This incident is still a dynamic situation," he said. "This fire is getting bigger."

Kauffman also said the fire has all the key ingredients to spread. These include hot, dry weather, "receptive" fuels, or material that lights up easily, and poor humidity recovery, which means the evenings do not bring moisture and dew to the plants.

He also mentioned the weather inversion, which had settled over the fire in the past couple days, trapping smoke on top of the fire. He explained how the smoke cover can cool the fire, but it also makes it nearly impossible for the helicopter pilots to find flames upon which to dump their water.

"When that happens, a lot of times they just have to turn back and sit down," he said. "So it's tricky with the helicopters because they're expensive, so we don't want to waste them."

But on Friday the inversion seemed to be lifting, at least enough to clear the smoke. Kauffman said the westerly winds had picked back up, which could be a good thing, because those winds could force the fire back up the canyons and valleys and back onto itself.

That would be welcome news after the fire exploded from a few hundred acres to 3,000 on Tuesday, making columns of smoke visible from as far away as Salem.

"That was a big day," said Kauffman.

Contact reporter Neil Zawicki at 541-812-6099 or neil.zawicki@lee.net

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