MCKENZIE BRIDGE, Ore. — The cabin’s windows are covered with aluminum sheets and foil. The nearby undergrowth and small trees have been slashed away. Any moss touching the exterior walls has been dug up.

For several days, Pat Rarick and his family have worked to protect their vacation cabin in the trees near the upper McKenzie River from the roaring forest fire just a couple of miles away.

“This place has been in our family for 60 years,” Rarick said after pulling off the heavy-duty respirator that protects his lungs from the air’s heavy smoke. “We’d like to keep it for another 60.”

The nearby Horse Creek Complex fires are “so new for this area,” he added. “In all our years here, we’ve never even had the threat of a wildfire.”

Rarick was among the stragglers on Wednesday after county officials elevated the evacuation threat the previous evening for areas around McKenzie Bridge, about 50 miles east of Eugene.

The community’s residential streets, still cloaked in heavy and pungent smoke, were largely deserted. The parking lots of small holiday resorts and rental homes were empty.

All the people who remained were packed and ready to go, should the threat of the fires, burning to their east and south, suddenly increase.

Mike Gilbertson hauled his raft and family mementos down to Eugene on Tuesday night. Then, the Portland resident said, he came back to enjoy what could be his last night in the cabin where he has spent most summer weekends for last 16 years.

On Wednesday, Gilbertson moved his wooden sculptures and outdoor furniture into a small patch of lawn on his forested property, hoping to keep them away from a possible fire. He then planned to spray his roof with Dawn washing liquid, which he had heard could act as a fire retardant.

His biggest concern, Gilbertson said, was not the house burning down.

“I’m insured so I could rebuild,” he said. “But I don’t want all the trees around here to be charred stumps.”

“That wouldn’t be the place I know.”

Some good news

Still, Wednesday brought some good news to area residents. The Horse Creek Complex’s 1,200-acre Avenue Fire, the one burning closest to McKenzie Bridge, was “fairly quiet” on Tuesday and Wednesday, according to the fire management team.

So firefighters shifted some of their personnel and equipment east to the larger Separation Fire, which stood at almost 16,000 acres.

That fire now appears to be moving primarily north and east, said fire management team spokeswoman Sandra Lopez, not west toward the communities of McKenzie Bridge, Rainbow and Blue River.

But forecast thunderstorms into Thursday could rapidly change things, officials warned.

Camp Melakwa, a primitive camp for Boy Scouts on the Old McKenzie Highway — Highway 242 — is in the current path of the Separation Fire.

Scott Impecoven, CEO of the scouts’ Oregon Trail Council, said Scouts leaders had been allowed into the camp on Monday, to move their new docks and canoes to the middle of Lake Melakwa and to remove memorabilia.

Firefighters asked them to prioritize which structures to try to save in case the fire arrives, Impecoven said.

“It’s not looking good,” he said. “There are (fire) hotspots right near camp. It would be a tremendous loss for a lot of our campers.”

Effect on businesses

Meanwhile, the forest fires and their smoke continued to wreak havoc for local businesses as the end of their summer season approaches.

“Everyone is getting beat up,” said Dave King, the golf pro at the Tokatee Golf course off the McKenzie Highway, as he looked out from the clubhouse at the empty fairways. “It’s such a short season for us up here.”

Only 11 golfers came to Tokatee on Labor Day, King said. On Tuesday, only two visited all day.

But King said the fires had brought out an unusual cohesion in the community, where many people live in isolated homes in the woods.

“People are very edgy, but no one is panicked yet,” he said. “There’s been a real sense of people being willing to help each other out.”

After its closure and evacuation on Tuesday, the Belknap Hot Springs resort reopened Wednesday afternoon. County officials lowered the resort area’s evacuation notice from level 3, which means “go,” to a level 2, which means “get set.”

Sitting in a bamboo chair, resort employee Marlene Watson was making phone calls, trying to convince people with reservations to return.

“We’ve been lucky,” she said of the decreased fire threat. “Of course, it hurt business. But better safe than sorry.”


Information from: The Register-Guard, http://www.registerguard.com

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SAUL HUBBARD
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