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Oregon Fires Are 'Top Priority'

Firefighters in Oregon worked Wednesday to reinforce their last-ditch line of defense against a 30-mile wall of fire threatening Oregon's Illinois Valley, as more residents left with their belongings.

Commanders of the Florence and Sour Biscuit fires in southwestern Oregon had racheted up the evacuation notice Tuesday, urging residents to be packed and ready to leave within 30 minutes of a notice to be carried on local radio. Some residents had started leaving and Josephine County sheriff's deputies planned to start posting signs marking evacuation routes out of the valley.

Weather conditions worsened Wednesday with red flag warnings going up, calling for strong winds out of the north and low humidity on the ridge tops where fire is already spotting miles ahead.

"We are looking at the fire at this time as uncontrollable," said Greg Gilpin of the Oregon Department of Forestry.

Unfavorable winds prevented firefighters from lighting off backfires during the night to reinforce their primary fire line.

Another 100 miles of line still must be built to corral the Florence and Biscuit fires, considered the number one priority in the nation Wednesday for firefighting resources.

Calm, cool weather Wednesday in southwestern Colorado helped firefighters scrambling to protect archaeological treasures, across the state from another wildfire where a helicopter pilot was killed while battling flames.

The crash near Rocky Mountain National Park on Tuesday — the second fatal crash at that fire and the second firefighting fatality in three days — brought to at least 15 the number of people killed this summer while fighting wildfires that have burned more than 4 million acres.

"This is a devastating season," said John Bustos, spokesman for the Roosevelt National Forest.

The helicopter's pilot — identified as Leonard G. Knight, 52, of Boulder — was the only person on board. He was dropping water on hotspots of the 4,400-acre fire that broke out July 17 and was contained Friday.

Two people were killed fighting the same fire on July 18 when their World War II-era plane broke apart while carrying a load of fire retardant.

A California wildfire that may have been sparked by a National Guard helicopter continued to burn Wednesday across 15,000 acres of dry brush and trees in rural eastern San Diego County.

The fire, which has destroyed five homes and killed four wolves at a wildlife center near Julian, was about 10 percent contained Wednesday morning, said Martie Perkins, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Forestry.

The town of Julian, known as a weekend getaway for San Diego residents, was not in any immediate danger, Perkins said.

California National Guard officials said Tuesday that one of their helicopter pilots may have set off the fire by clipping a power line while on an anti-drug reconnaissance flight.

National Guard spokesman Lt. Col. Terry Knight said the service would do whatever it could to help anyone displaced by the fire and will pay damages if found at fault. "We'll do everything we can to make things right," he told reporters.

Besides the five homes, the fire destroyed three barns, eight vehicles, three recreational vehicles and caused two injuries to firefighters. Details about the injuries were not immediately available.

In southwestern Colorado, crews worked to protect archaeological treasures at Mesa Verde National Park from a 2,077-acre blaze that had forced the evacuation of the park.

The blaze remained out of control on Wednesday but fire information officer Justin Dombrowski said the weather calmed during the night and cooler weather was expected to aid crews Wednesday.

Despite warnings that the Illinois Valley, Oregon, fire line may not hold, Shelley Heon said she's not leaving her home until she can see the flames.

"I have five acres of property that needs to be tended to," Heon said. "It's a hard one, but there's no need to leave now."

About 200 people sat in the stifling heat of the Illinois Valley High School gym to hear the bad news, but many shared Heon's view.

One who didn't was Maggie Connery, whose husband is one of 1,200 firefighters on the Florence Fire. Holding her 2½-year-old son, Connery said she was taking her children to nearby Grants Pass to stay with family.

The Florence Fire stands at about 145,000 acres and Sour Biscuit at about 35,000 acres. Maps posted outside the gym showed they are still four miles from running into each other but together form a 30-mile long front of fire threatening the communities of O'Brien, Cave Junction, Selma and Kerby.

Two Rocky Mountain park-owned employee residences were destroyed as flames swept up the pinon- and juniper-covered hillsides. A sewage treatment plant, three commercial buildings and four outbuildings were also destroyed, and the park was without drinking water because the top was burned off a million-gallon tank, contaminating the contents. No injuries were reported.

The fire threatened 70 additional structures and the park's last surviving stands of old-growth trees.

The park, 240 miles southwest of Denver, has an estimated 25,000 archaeological sites from the Ancestral Pueblo Indian culture that vanished more than 700 years ago. Its cliff dwellings date to the 1200s and pit houses date to the 500s.

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