New front in wildfire battle opens in central Oregon

Oregon Live – by Lynne Terry

Lightning pummeled parts of Oregon since Wednesday, igniting dozens of new wildfires as smoke from existing blazes continued to hang in the air.

Central Oregon was hit with 1,800 strikes in the last 24 hours, Kate Goossens,  a spokeswoman for the Central Oregon Interagency Dispatch Center, said Thursday.  

Smoke jumpers, rappellers and hand crews contained most of the new fires, one of whichcost a firefighter his life Thursday. John Hammack, 58, who grew up in Sisters, was struck by a falling tree while clearing timber in the Deschutes National Forest.

Firefighters are still battling one large fire about 13 miles northwest of Sisters.

“It’s giving them some challenges,” Goossens said.

The fire has scorched up to 75 acres and is burning on a steep slope in timber.

“It’s almost too steep to put hand crews on it,” she said.

Firefighters have been dropping retardant on the flames and a heavy helicopter is making water drops. There’s no estimate of when it will be contained.

Meanwhile, big wildfires persisted in southern Oregon.

A complex of five fires grew by 4,000 acres as another 500 firefighters reported for duty, said Megan Harper, a spokeswoman for responders in Grants Pass.

About 125 National Guard troops arrived as well to help with evacuations, road closures and public safety.

A total of 470 homes are threatened by the Douglas complex of fires west of Glendale, with homeowners under various evacuation warnings or orders.

The Douglas complex has charred nearly 30,000 acres and was 7 percent contained on Thursday. More than 1,640 firefighters and other personnel were assigned to the blaze.


Harper said the winds kick up in the afternoon, shooting embers and flames. But so far, crews have been able to keep the spotting in check.

Northwest of Cave Junction, the Labrador fire has scorched nearly 2,000 acres and is zero percent contained. More than 530 firefighters and other staff are assigned to the blaze. The fire is largely burning in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness, Harper said.

“Once it gets into a wilderness, the tactic is to watch its progress while making sure it doesn’t threaten any structures,” Harper said.

The Big Windy complex of fires is even bigger. Northwest of Merlin, it’s in steep, rugged terrain that’s difficult to access. Harper said the main concern among the nearly 270 firefighters and other personnel is to keep the blaze south of the Rogue River.

The fire is zero percent contained.

The Whiskey complex, east of Tiller, has charred nearly 4,000 acres and is 15 percent contained.

“They were able to make good progress yesterday,” Harper said.

Nearly 900 people are battling that blaze.

And nearly 700 are fighting on the Brimstone fire, northwest of Merlin. It, too, is now 15 percent contained, with crews working on burnout operations to create containment lines.

And in Washington state, two large fires have charred nearly 100,000 acres.

The biggest is the Colockum Tarps fire in Kittitas and Chelan counties southeast of Wenatchee.Officials ordered more evacuations on Wednesday as crews focused on the southern and western flanks. About 700 firefighters and other staff are fighting the fire, which is 25 percent contained.

The other big blaze is the Mile Marker 28 fire northeast of Goldendale, which has charred nearly 27,000 acres.

Randy Shepard,  spokesman for the incident management team, said crews only need to build line on a western edge. The fire is 65 percent contained and official have reopened Highway 97, though a pilot car is guiding vehicles through the area.

— Lynne Terry

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