July 17, 2002 11:00 pm

By Jayson Jacoby

For The Observer

BAKER CITY — The Monument fire burned hotter Wednesday than any day since Saturday.

The lightning-caused blaze about 9 miles south of Unity charred 6,000 acres Wednesday, bringing the total to 24,700 acres since the fire started six days ago.

Flames were hottest Wednesday at the fire's northwest corner, where they reached stands of readily combustible dead lodgepole pine in the Bear Creek area, said Don Ferguson, information officer at the Monument fire camp at Unity Schools.

"Fire activity is expected to remain extreme" in that area today, Ferguson said.

Those heavy fuels, as much as the dry, hot weather, were responsible for the fire's largest run since it spread over 17,000 acres on Saturday, he said.

The fire did not grow at all Sunday or Monday, when temperatures were slightly cooler and winds lighter.

Although fire officials estimated the blaze is 5 percent contained — the same as Wednesday — Ferguson said fire lines on the north and east flanks are "holding and pretty secure."

And firefighters and firefighting machines continue to roll (or fly) into Unity.

As of this morning 268 people were assigned to the fire, about 50 more than on Wednesday.

Resources include 100 Hot Shot crew members, 20 fire engines and nine bulldozers.

Ferguson said officials expect two helicopters to arrive today, including a heavy craft that can dump about 2,000 gallons of water per load.

The other chopper is a "medium" version that carries about 300 gallons, Ferguson said.

Also, a battalion of U.S. Army troops from Fort Riley, Kan., is scheduled to arrive in Unity on Monday.

That contingent will include about 500 firefighters, as well as 150 or so support personnel, Ferguson said.

They'll bring along six or seven helicopters, including a Chinook that can haul a whopping 3,000 gallons of water at a time, he said.

"By this time next week we'll have more than 1,000 people here," Ferguson said.

Fire bosses probably would already have that many firefighters in Unity but for the other large blazes burning across Oregon and Washington, Ferguson said.

The Monument fire ranks ninth on the priority list for firefighters, he said. That means eight other fires pose a greater risk to people and property, he said. Ferguson acknowledged that the Monument ranking might surprise people who have read or heard televised reports stating that the Monument fire could grow to 100,000 acres.