A firefighter faces a wall of flame and smoke as he fights the Milepost 97 Fire near Canyonville. Residents fear another hazy summer with labored breathing.
A firefighter faces a wall of flame and smoke as he fights the Milepost 97 Fire near Canyonville. Residents fear another hazy summer with labored breathing.
MYRTLE CREEK — Firefighters have the Milepost 97 Fire in Southern Oregon largely under control, but fear endures as hot windy weather is expected.

“The fire is very scary,” Father Karl Schray, administrator of All Souls Parish in Myrtle Creek and Holy Family Mission in Glendale, said in early August.

The region’s first major conflagration of the season burned more than 13,000 acres close to Interstate 5 — at one point leaping the freeway — and created smoky conditions from Roseburg to Ashland. Residents of Azalea and Glendale were on alert to evacuate but got a reprieve, thanks to firefighters and advantageous weather.

Father Schray said one family from All Souls reported that flames were just an arrow’s shot from their home. “These people are just packed and ready to go if need be,” the priest said.

Another parish family lives near milepost 98 off Interstate 5 and could not breathe. They loaded belongings into an RV and drove to clearer air.

Police say the blaze started when a homeless man lit a fire to heat up a can of beans. Campfires are banned in the area.

Members of All Souls were preparing the parish to welcome evacuees, if needed, with beds and meals.

A tent city of firefighters was set up near the town of Riddle and helicopters carrying water to drop on the fire charged overhead.

Father Schray was able to get through to Canyonville during the fire to give last rites to a hospice patient.

On his Sunday drive to preside at Mass in Glendale late last month, the priest counted 50 smoking hotspots along Interstate 5.

Smoke tends to gather in bowl-like valleys like those where Grants Pass, Medford and Ashland sit. Memories of heavy smoke for the past two summers have Southern Oregon Catholics reaching for the particle masks.

“It’s been pretty bad,” Debbie Todor, administrative assistant at St. Anne Parish in Grants Pass said Aug. 1. “It’s pretty thick and smoky. We have masks to hand out to parishioners.”

Todor, who herself suffered from a scratchy throat, said residents of the area are starting to get concerned about the long term health effects of smoke summer after summer, a new development in the past three years. Numbers have been down slightly at Masses, she reported.

The new St. Anne Church has an air system that mostly keeps smoke particles out of the worship space.

Pauline Schulze, business administrator at St. Joseph Parish in Roseburg, said the fire created only minor air quality problems in the city.

Brenda Woodburn, director of administration at Sacred Heart Parish in Medford, said this first round of smoke was minor compared to last summer’s dense haze. Parishioners with pulmonary conditions suffered last year, Woodburn said, her voice slightly anxious about smoke to come.

By Aug. 6, the haze had dissipated in Ashland.

“It’s almost nice again,” said staffer Anne Powell, who has not noticed a drop in Mass attendance. “We are just grateful it’s clearing up.