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California-Oregon Wildfires Merge

The Florence and Sour Biscuit fires merged Thursday, and are now being called just the Florence fire. Combined, it has burned more than 296,000 acres in the Siskiyou National Forest in southwestern Oregon and across the border in California.

The blaze is only 15 percent contained, said fire information officer Mike Ferris, and firefighters need to build another 138 miles of fire line around it before it is fully encircled. More than 5,000 firefighters are on the fire in both states.

Fire commanders felt it still had the potential to break out to the west toward the coast, but the threat to the 17,000 people of the Illinois Valley on the east flank continued to ease.

The fires were brought together by burnout operations that have consolidated and strengthened containment lines, particularly on the eastern flank where the Florence Fire has threatened the communities of O'Brien, Cave Junction, Kerby and Selma, said Ferris.

"That is a good thing," Ferris said. "That means we have a pretty solid containment line from north of Selma to the California border."

Meanwhile, more than 3,000 firefighters worked to prevent the further spread of a wildfire in Southern California that has burned across more than 80 square miles of mountainous terrain east of San Diego.

Crews concentrated on protecting the rural town of Ranchita and trying to control the flames where they were most intense — in the Los Coyotes Indian reservation and in Anza Borrego State Park, said state Department of Forestry spokeswoman Martie Perkins.

The blaze had drawn to the edge of Ranchita, home to about 340 people, but firefighters believed they could safeguard the community, Perkins said.

The wildfire began July 29 after a National Guard helicopter clipped a power line during a search for marijuana plants in the rugged, isolated area. The fire has burned through some 53,000 acres and destroyed 25 homes. It was 60 percent contained late Wednesday.

Weather forecasts for the Florence fire called for a warming and drying trend to continue into the weekend, with winds out of the northeast, gusting on the southern end of the fire up to 40 mph. That was good news for the Illinois Valley, but bad news for the Wilderness Retreat subdivision on the Chetco River, where the fire was burning just 5 miles to the west.

On the fire's northern flank, about 70 residents of the Rogue River Canyon hamlet of Agness met Wednesday night with Incident Commander Kim Martin, who told them containment lines have about a 50 percent chance of keeping the fire from their homes.

"A fair amount of that line is in, and now it's a matter of getting it wider," said spokesman Mark Wurdeman.

Some residents expressed frustration that more firefighters were not sent earlier, but Martin said resources have been stretched around the nation, and now that the blaze is the country's top priority, help is flowing in, Wurdeman said.

The lost timber in Oregon apparently will have little impact on the lumber industry.

The Oregon Department of Forestry estimates that 83,253 acres of state and private land have burned, said Rod Nichols, spokesman for the agency.

That's about 40 times the average amount that would go up in smoke by July.

"While this amount of wood seems like a lot, in the global international lumber and pulp market, it's not that significant," said Chris West, vice president of the American Forest Resource Council in Portland. "But in the regional situation it is very significant."

Most of the timber that is now burning wouldn't have been cut soon anyway, because of federal harvesting restrictions.

An Iowa schoolteacher who spent two weeks fighting the fires in Oregon says she's ready to face her eighth grade students.

"I won't say it wasn't a challenge, but I was able to do it," Helen Schabilion she said.

Schabilion returned home Friday from eastern Oregon, where she labored with 1,800 other firefighters to bring a 120,000-acre blaze under control. Schabilion fought the Toolbox complex fire in Fremont National Forest.

She worked on a crew of 20 firefighters cutting out brush, digging fire lines and checking for hot spots throughout the fire site.

Besides teaching, Schabilion is a park ranger at the Herbert Hoover National Historic Site in West Branch during the summer.

She said the firefighting work, for which she was certified this summer, was difficult but also satisfying.

"It was the coolest thing I've ever been a part of," she said. "I've never been so dirty in my life. I mean I was just black, but I loved it."

There are also wildfires in China.

Firefighters have extinguished five of 10 fires that were raging in the Greater Hinggan Mountains, and two more were under control, the official Xinhua News Agency said Thursday.

More than 5,000 firefighters have been struggling to control the blazes, sparked by lightning strikes in late July, Xinhua said. No injuries have been reported and it was not immediately clear how big an area had been affected.

The flames had burned unchecked because of the remote location and have been fueled by prolonged hot weather, the news agency said. Attempts to provoke rainfall through cloud-seeding were not successful because of unfavorable weather conditions, it added.

Firefighters at the scene were confident that they would bring the fires under control by the end of the week, but they said new blazes could easily start if it didn't rain soon, Xinhua said.

The Greater Hinggan Mountains stretch through the northern region of Inner Mongolia and contain China's largest forest.

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