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Oregon Valley Gets Reprieve From Fire

A shift in the wind allowed firefighters to torch miles of brush in an effort to save thousands of homes in southwest Oregon.

Crews burned a black swath of safety for the 17,000 people of the Illinois Valley. With each mile of burnout added along the 30-mile front of fire, the threat to the towns of Selma, Kerby, Cave Junction and O'Brien diminished.

"I certainly feel better today," Illinois Valley Fire Chief Kyle Kirchner told those who attended a community meeting Thursday night on the Illinois Valley High School football field.

"We're close to turning a corner, but we're not out of the woods yet."

Even though the forecast is calling for higher humidity and the possibility of rain next week, CBS News Correspondent Stephan Kaufman reports the 159,000-acre Florence fire in southwestern Oregon is still belching an enormous amount of smoke and flame — and the danger isn't over.

Trees weakened by days of intense fire can topple over onto firefighters attempting to clear logs that are blocking fire crews and equipment.

"It's that way for several days after this fire goes through," said Engine Captain Carl Sarubbi. "(Trees) will burn through at the base. There may be another right here tomorrow. (We) just keep coming back and keep doing it again and again until they stop falling."

The Florence and Sour Biscuit fires have burned 200,000 acres since lightning started them two weeks ago. Together, they have become the nation's top firefighting priority because of their size, behavior, and the threat to people.

Throughout Oregon, nearly 13,000 firefighters battled major wildfires burning 452,000 acres.

Meanwhile, Colorado fire crews aided by cooler temperatures and cloud cover were making progress on a 3,300-acre wildfire burning in one of the nation's archaeological treasures.

The blaze was 30 percent contained Friday despite shifting, gusting winds and torching flames 100 feet above the treetops.

There was a silver lining to the fire in the Mesa Verde National Park: The wildfire has unveiled new traces of the ancestral Puebloan culture.

Archaeologists accompanying firefighters have found remnants of field houses used by ancestral Puebloans when they grew corn a thousand years ago. Ash was 1- to 2-inches deep in some areas.

Full containment is expected Monday. The park will reopen after crews repair telephone and power lines, sewer and water systems damaged by the blaze, park superintendent Larry Wiese said. The repairs are expected to take one week.

The museum, library and other buildings in the headquarters area were threatened by the fire. Utility services including power and water were shutdown by the fire.

More than 2,000 firefighters struggled to contain a 17,500-acre blaze in California that has closed major highways into Julian, Calif. The blaze is expected to be contained by Sunday. Another wildfire raging in the Sequoia National Forest grew to 92,500 acres Thursday. Officials estimated containment at 40 percent.

A spokesperson for the U.S. Forest Service says the weather in Oregon is beginning to cooperate and is allowing firefighters to dig lines protecting the 17,000 residents of the valley, where the Florence and Sour Biscuit fires have been burning for weeks.

"The fact that this humidity is going up and that there's even a possibility of rain is beyond the physical realm thing," laughed resident Martha Hodges. "You know, there's a lot of people praying around here."

Here are some of the other major wildfires that were burning Thursday in Oregon:

  • The Timbered Rock fire about 20 miles north of Medford. It had burned about 20,000 acres, was 20 percent contained and was being battled by about 1,000 firefighters. Officials have urged the residents of 40 homes to evacuate.
  • The Cache Mountain fire, burning on 4,200 acres 15 miles northwest of Sisters, has destroyed two homes but was 100 percent contained.
  • The Tiller Complex, east of Canyonville off Interstate 5, has burned 26,850 acres and was 25 percent contained.
  • The Toolbox Fire, which has scorched 86,794 acres in Lake County, was 75 percent contained.
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