Storm causes dozen fire starts

July 17, 2013 11:41 am

ENTERPRISE — The Nebo Fire spotted Sunday afternoon in the Eagle Cap Wilderness has been held to just 10 acres, but a lightning storm that traveled across Northeast Oregon Tuesday night started more than a dozen new fires.

“We are doing a bunch of reconnaissance flights today and will probably pick up a few more,” said Nathan Goodrich, Wallowa-Whitman North Zone fire management officer. “I think the north end has five new starts, and the rest are scattered across forest.”

Goodrich said fires started Tuesday night in Wallowa County are up the Lostine River, on Sheep Ridge outside of the town of Lostine, while one is near Forest Road 46 and one is burning near McGraw Lookout.

The biggest one now is the Cuba Fire on the Idaho side of the Hells Canyon Wilderness near Granite Creek, which has grown to 60 acres from the time it was reported early Tuesday afternoon.

Goodrich said the Vale Hotshots have been moved from the Nebo Fire to the Cuba Fire. Helicopter rappellers are also fighting the blaze, and fire retardant is being dropped to keep the fire at bay.

“We are dealing with a fire in a canyon in the grass. If you don’t put it out, you are going to have a big fire,” Goodrich said. “We want to put this one out while we still have a chance — it’s only July.”

Northeast Oregon was under a red flag warning Tuesday, meaning the potential for lightning-started fires is high. The U.S. Forest Service and Service and the Oregon Department of Forestry are implementing further protective measures effective at 12:01 a.m. Thursday to minimize human-caused fire starts in the midst of an already booming fire season.

La Grande Rural Fire Department had a busy weekend for this time of year putting out several small fires locally. One at Ladd Marsh burned almost two acres and is believed to be caused by people lighting fireworks, said Fire Chief Larry Wooldridge.

The red flag warning, designated by the National Weather Service, means there’s a combination of high winds, low humidity and high temperatures, creating an ideal scenario for lightning strikes.

“It’s a combination that could be scary even though it’s a little green still,” Wooldridge said Tuesday. “We’re all kind of on edge waiting to see what happens.”

Wooldridge said the department is working with ODF to get signs out so people are aware of when fire season is and what they can do to prevent fire. Some of that prevention comes from the mandated use restrictions.

“The fuel conditions have progressively dried out,” said ODF Unit Forester Joe Hessel. “We really feel like we need to ramp things up a little bit in terms of restrictions with the intent that Mother Nature is going to provide us with an ample number of fires.”

Hessel said lightning strikes can be somewhat predictable — red flag warnings, for example, help — but humans are not.

Some of the biggest restrictions that come with regulated closure on ODF-protected lands include the prohibition of campfires and chainsaw restrictions.

“This year we’re restricting the use of sky lanterns and exploding targets and the use of tracer ammunitions,” Hessel said. “Those things have resulted in some fires within the last couple of years, so we’re getting a lot more proactive about restricting the use of those things.”

When lightning approaches, ODF increases resources to help minimize fire risks and to help aid in containment.

“That might mean a lot of things — canceling days off for crews, working longer hours on any given day,” Hessel said.

ODF also has four additional bulldozers ready, and just this week had three aircraft arrive on a 75-day contract. Two single-engine air tankers and a type II helicopter are ready at the Union County Airport, and Hessel said ODF thinks they will help.

“We think they’ll be real effective,” he said.