WALLOWA COUNTY — The Elbow Creek Fire, which started Thursday, July 15, has quickly grown to an estimated 9,000 acres, causing the evacuation of residents in the northwest end of Wallowa County, including the town of Troy and those living on Eden Bench.
The fire, which U.S. Forest Service officials said was first reported at 2:32 p.m. July 15, started just downstream from the confluence of Elbow Creek and the Grande Ronde River, according to David Weaver with the Oregon Department of Forestry. He said the cause of the fire is under investigation.
It quickly took off, burning along both sides of the Grande Ronde River toward Troy, Weaver said. By 6 p.m. July 15, it was estimated to be 700 to 1,000 acres, and Weaver estimated a couple hours later it had grown to more than 2,500 acres. According to the USFS, it is burning in grass and timber, and the continuous hot and dry conditions are contributing to the growth of the blaze.
The fire is also burning in tough terrain.
“You have a very steep, deep, river canyon with very dead fine grass on one side ... and on the other side you have timber,” Weaver explained.
By the evening, it had moved to within about 5 miles of both Troy and Promise. Weaver said July 16 it has moved closer to Promise, currently burning to the northwest of the tiny town. It’s burning southwest of Troy.
The fire, Weaver said, spread down river along the Grande Ronde and has been working its way up the slope on both sides of the canyon.
From its initial starting point, the fire burned toward Elbow Creek and Grossman Creek to the west, and toward Wildcat Creek to the east. It is making its way south toward Sickfoot Road, and to the north it is spreading toward Cabin Creek.
On both the north and south sides, Weaver said, crews are in place to conduct structure protection.
He said the situation is “all hands on deck. We got everybody we can possibly gather.”
That includes firefighters from the Forest Service, from Joseph, Wallowa and Enterprise fire departments, ODF fighters from Wallowa, La Grande, Baker and Pendleton, and even local landowners.
The USFS said the afternoon of July 16 that a Type 3 Northeast Oregon Interagency Management Team is now staffing the fire. The Type 3 team likely will transition to a Type 1 team Saturday, July 17.
A helibase is being established in Flora. Fire camp is being set up in Wallowa, with a spike camp in Promise.
Evacuation notices issued by sheriff’s office
Level 3 “Get Out” evacuation notices were initially given by the Wallowa County Sheriff’s Office for Eden Bench, then for Troy, and now include Wildcat Road, Powwatka Road, and the 500/501 Road up to the 763 Road. Those notices, as of the morning of July 16, were still in place.
Roy Flat and the 603 Road are at a Level 1 “Get Ready” notice.
Watching the fire nervously from the Flora-Troy Road about 5 miles from Troy, Travis Beach heeded the warnings July 15 to be prepared to evacuate.
“We’re ready to go. We’re nervous,” he said. “We have our stuff packed and ready to go.”
He was there talking with friends Donald and Kathy Casper, who with their son drove pickups from Wallowa to help.
“We came out to lend a hand to our friends,” Kathy Casper said. “We have several friends here in Flora that might need their equipment moved. They didn’t have enough people to move their equipment so we were coming out to help.”
Jim Henson, who was watching a little farther up the road, was ready to go.
“We’re as packed as we can be. Put valuables in a go bag and park the equipment in a fallow field that’s been plowed. There’s the house and outbuildings, the hay and crops in the fields we can’t do much about.”
“Unfortunately, for our friends and clients in Troy and on Eden Bench, it doesn’t look so promising,” Kathy Casper said. “Travis (Beach) has a beautiful home down the hill.”
Area residents had their guesses as to the cause of the blaze.
“From what they’re saying it was a sleeper from the lightning storm a week ago that just smoldered and then took off, or it’s man-caused,” Beach said. “I can’t speculate.”
Henson agreed the sleeper was possible, but had other ideas.
“It’s probably a man-caused fire,” he said. “I don’t know what else it could be. It’s right there on the river.”
As for whether the blaze will reach his property, Henson said, “It’s 50-50. It is what it is.”
Smoky skies over the valley
The Elbow Creek Fire is contributing to the smoky conditions in the Grande Ronde Valley, but it is not a major factor according to Marilyn Lohmann, a forecaster for the National Weather Service office in Pendleton.
“The majority of the smoke is from the Bootleg Fire,” said Lohmann, referring to the 241,000-acre fire in Southwestern Oregon, one of the largest in the nation.
She said La Grande is expected to receive wind from the southwest this weekend, which means significantly more smoke from the Bootleg Fire may be arriving.
“You probably will have a smoky weekend,” Lohmann said.
La Grande had smoky conditions the morning of July 16, but its air quality rating, according to AirNow.gov, was in the good category at 11. This may have been because of the altitude of the smoke, explained Rob Brooks, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Pendleton.
“Just because you have smoke aloft does not mean you have it on the surface,” Brooks said.
He said July 16 that wind conditions are not expected to push smoke toward the floor of the Grande Ronde Valley over the weekend, but, he added, “That could change, however.”