Storms down powerlines, spark new fires

By Observer staff August 02, 2013 11:30 am
Thunderstorms rolled through Northeast Oregon Thursday, knocking out power for some and starting fires across the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest. Fortunately, heavy rains have kept the fires small so far.

The fires were caused by some of the  900 lightning strikes the northeast corner of the state received between 4 a.m. and 8 p.m. Thursday, according to the National Weather Service office in Pendleton. 

The majority of the lightning strikes were in Union, Wallowa, Baker and Umatilla counties, said Ann Adams, an assistant meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Pendleton.

Winds generated by an afternoon thunderstorm in Union County ranged from 16 to 37 mph, according to the NWS. The wind blew one tree into Oregon Trail Electric’s Catherine Creek line outside of Union just before 2 p.m., leaving 19 OTEC customers without power until about 4 p.m. The downed line was along Highway 203 just east of Catherine Creek State Park.

OTEC Energy Program Representative Nancy Van Sickle stressed that whenever a tree falls into power line people need to remember they should never touch the tree. Anyone who does runs the risk of being electrocuted.

“The power could still be on. It still could be a live wire,” Van Sickle said.

La Grande received .18 inches of rain between 6 a.m. Thursday and 6 a.m. Friday, while Union received .14 inches of rain during the same period.

The precipitation in Wallowa County was much heavier. Flora was hit hardest, being pounded by 1.55 inches of rain. A site 2.5 miles southeast of Lostine received .87 of an inch of rain.

The rain helped douse 25 new fires caused by Thursday’s lightning activity reported by the Blue Mountain Interagency Dispatch headquartered in La Grande. The largest of Thursday’s starts grew to 25 acres on Murray Peak three miles east of Unity. The rest were held to under a quarter acre.

Nathan Goodrich, fire management officer for the Wallowa-Whitman’s north zone, said two more fires were picked up Friday morning and crews were dispatched to them. 

Goodrich said the Forest Service will conduct a reconnaissance flight this afternoon to look for more potential starts.

All of the fires called in Thursday on the north zone were accessible by foot or engines. However, a couple of fires found late Thursday evening, including one in the Hells Canyon Wilderness, needed rappel crews, which were dispatched Friday.

The Wallowa Unit of the Oregon Department of Forestry responded to six fires Thursday — most were in the Wallowa area, with one near Troy on Bartlett Bench.

The La Grande District picked up a few starts including one near the Starkey Experimental Station and on Burn Creek 17 miles east of North Powder.