Susan Parrish
The La Grande Observer

Fire officials ask for public to stay away from the scene

As the firefighters continue to work on the Bear Butte Fire, officials ask that members of the public stay away from the fire. Curious onlookers have attempted to cross the barriers to get a closer look at the fire. That’s not a good idea.

“(Anthony Lakes Highway) is incredibly dangerous,” Barry Hansen, the liaison officer with the incident management team that is fighting the blaze, said. “There are trees coming down. Rocks are cutting loose and coming down. Then there’s the snags and even live trees that are burning. It’s taken out the power lines. We’re trying to keep those roads blocked, but people keep trying to sneak in. We’re trying to keep people safe by keeping them out of there. We’re hoping people will start to cooperate.”

— Susan Parrish, For WesCom News Service

NORTH POWDER — The Bear Butte Fire near Anthony Lakes is now the top priority fire in the Pacific Northwest, according to U.S. Forest Service and other officials who spoke to about 50 people at an informational meeting Monday night at Haines School.

An infrared flight Monday night determined that 489 acres have burned near the popular ski and recreation area. After firefighters strengthened lines around the fire, containment was increased from 10 percent to 30 percent late Monday night. The fire is along the Anthony Lakes Highway about 12 miles from North Powder.

Favorable weather conditions Tuesday allowed firefighters to suppress several spot fires and continue strengthening control lines, according to a fire update released by officials early this morning.

Crews from Oregon Trail Electric Cooperative were expected to begin repairing damaged power lines paralleling the Highway 73 corridor on today.

Another infrared flight scheduled for tonight will determine remaining hot spots.

Since Monday, the fire has expanded by more than 100 acres due to burnout operations along bulldozed fire lines.

“Burnout operations mean the crews ignite a fire to burn off fuel that will strengthen the fire line,” Christi Powers, fire information officer working at the incident command post near North Powder, said. “There are little fingers and pockets of fuel — vegetation that looks like it could be flammable. Sealing off those fire lines with burnout operations are what increased the fire’s acreage.”

Powers explained that fire lines are dug either by hand or with bulldozers.

“The bulldozers upend the earth, which does not burn the way vegetation would,” she said. “The burnout operation is simply to burn vegetation to create a secure fire perimeter. If a fire doesn’t have any fuel, it cannot grow.”

Additional headway was made in controlling the fire with the aid of water tenders, water tanks and skidgines, which diverted water north toward the fire line. Helicopters dropping water also have helped hold the fire line.

The Anthony Lakes Highway is closed at the spot before the road begins an ascent into timber. Many campers in the Anthony Lakes resort and recreation area were evacuated because of the fire. Hikers along the Elkhorn Crest Trail and campers in Van Patten Lake evacuated on their own.

Peter Johnson, general manager at Anthony Lakes Mountain Resort, remains up at the ski area running generators and keeping refrigerators and freezers going.

It has been a tough wildfire year, said Tom Montoya, forest supervisor, Wallowa-Whitman National Forest.

“Regionally, we’re reaching a very high level for fires in the Northwest,” Montoya said. “As of this morning, this fire is number one on the list. They’re going to find resources so we can keep this thing small. The success of this fire is keeping it small, but most important. making sure the firefighters come home safe every night.”

So far no firefighters have been injured in the Bear Butte Fire.

The wildfire was spotted by a worker at Anthony Lakes Mountain Resort on Friday afternoon and was reported at about 2 p.m. About 40 local firefighters — including six volunteers from North Powder Rural Fire Department — fought the fire on Friday, according to Jered Kmetic, a North Powder volunteer firefighter. By Wednesday, a total of 460 personnel had been assigned to the fire with the aid of dozers and other heavy equipment. Aircraft, helicopters and air tankers have been dropping water and retardant on the fire to reduce its spread.

Monday the emphasis was on containing the fire within its current perimeter. Three hotshot crews — from Warm Springs, Sacramento, California, and the Geronimo Hot Shots from San Carlos, Arizona — cut fire lines along the western edge. The fire has been most active in heavy, downed timber near the northwest corner, an area that last burned in a 2006 wildfire.

The fire is being managed by Northwest Incident Management Team 9 led by Incident Commander Brian Goff. The team arrived Saturday and, after being briefed by local agencies, took over the fire management Sunday morning. The incident management team has established its command post near the Anthony Lakes Highway at the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Elkhorn Wildlife Area.

Barry Hansen, the liaison officer with the incident management team that is fighting the blaze, said the fire has continued to move north toward Indian Creek. Every time the fire does something different or the weather changes, the team re-evaluates the situation.

“People who have residences, cabins, we know where you are,” Hansen said. He added that if the situation changed and people needed to be evacuated, they would be contacted.

Montoya said the Forest Service has been meeting with officials from Baker County, Union County, Grant County, Oregon Department of Forestry, the rural fire departments and Oregon Trail Electric Cooperative every morning to give them an update of the fire status.

OTEC power lines are down near the fire. Once the fire is contained, OTEC crews will repair the lines.

Joe Hessel, Oregon Department of Forestry, cited the cooperation between local, county and federal agencies as “the reason the footprint of the fire is so small.”

Hessel added, “I personally have some skin in the game. I have a cabin and 80 acres near Antelope Peak.”

Hessel referenced two other wildfires in the region — the Indian Lake Fire 25 miles southeast of Pendleton and the 300-acre Clarks Creek Fire seven miles southeast of Elgin. Crews have been busy wiping up both fires, and Hessel said crews have lines around both fires.

Fire crews are keeping an eye on the weather forecast, which is calling for possible thunderstorms today. A meteorologist is arriving to issue forecasts specific for the fire area that could aid crews in preparing for winds or other conditions that could affect how and where they work.

Fuels in Eastern Oregon forests have reached a 20-year cycle of historic dryness, according to the Forest Service. Low fuel moisture and humidity create extreme fire danger.

Hessel reminded the crowd at Monay’s meeting: “Things are hot and dry. Folks need to be careful.”

Jim and Rhea Patton attended Monday’s meeting to get more information about the fire. They have lived on a farm on the Anthony Lakes Highway for about 30 years. Rhea Patton said their farm is “about five or six miles from the fire as the crow flies.”

The Pattons came home from town on Friday and the Anthony Lakes Highway was closed. In their yard they set up lawn chairs and watched the helicopters and airplanes involved in the firefighting operation. The Pattons’ home is surrounded by farm fields quite a distance from the forest land. Rhea Patton said she is not concerned that her family will be evacuated.

“We live in the middle of fields,” Rhea Patton said. “I figure it won’t come our way.”

Patton’s neighbor, Rich Daniels, also lives along the Anthony Lakes Highway on the opposite side of where the fire is burning. But he lives beyond the road closure.

“We live about five miles as the crow flies from the fire,” Daniels said. “The road is closed down at the bridge, but landowners can get into their property.”

The U.S. Forest Service has closed a large area around the fire to public use. That includes the closure of Forest Service roads 73 (Anthony Lakes Highway), a segment of FS roads 43, 7325 and 5185. A portion of the Elkhorn Crest Trail is closed. No hikers are allowed in those areas.