UMATILLA — A rapidly spreading grass fire in Umatilla threatened residential areas, forced evacuations and knocked out power for hours, but was contained before it could inflict significant damage on the evening of Monday, Sept. 7.
A news release from the Umatilla Rural Fire Protection District stated the power lines went down in the “general area of Scaplehorn Road,” which connects to the north side of Highway 730 across from the highway’s intersection with Powerline Road to the south. The release stated the first fire crew on scene, at about 5 p.m., found the Encore Wellness clinic near the road was "experiencing impending flames."
Steven Potts, the chief of the district, said the district got a call of a grass fire near the intersection of Highway 395 and U.S. Route 730.
Strong winds pushed the fire west, eventually leading the blaze to jump Interstate 82 and threaten homes in the area. Potts said several neighborhoods were evacuated as the fire spread, although he knew of no injuries and the only structure that was lost was a vacant house that had long been abandoned.
By 6 p.m., high winds and blowing smoke closed both lanes of Interstate 82 between Interstate 84 and Umatilla, along with sections of Highway 395 and Highway 730. According to the National Weather Service in Pendleton, 6 p.m. is also when wind gusts peaked in the area at about 51 mph.
Potts said fire crews began containing the fire around 8:30 p.m. and residents were soon allowed to return to their homes. He added that firefighters were still on-site Tuesday to address hot spots and flareups. Potts estimated the fire burned a total of 200 acres.
According to Potts, the gusty conditions across the region contributed to the fire’s initial burst of growth. At one point, Potts said, he was driving near the fire on Power City Road when he noticed the fire was doing something he hadn’t seen in his more than 30 years of firefighting experience.
“It was moving faster than I could drive,” he said.
The nature of the fire provoked a regional firefighting response: Potts said several fire departments answered the mutual aid call, including the fire departments and districts in Hermiston, Echo, Pendleton, Heppner, Boardman, Irrigon and Ione. In total, Potts said 60 firefighting personnel were on the scene.
After over five hours of closures, the highways reopened around 11:15 p.m.
While the fire was under control on Tuesday morning, the repercussions remained for many Umatilla students who still did not have internet access to start their second week of distance learning.
According to a Facebook post by Eastern Oregon Telecom, fiber in the McNary area was “destroyed” and some towers were not working, knocking out internet to downtown Umatilla, the South Hill CMTS, the Umatilla River Pole, Christy Tower and connections to Washington. The company stated it was working Tuesday morning to reroute service, install a wireless backhaul, set up generators and make repairs to restore service quickly.
Steve Meyers, spokesman with Umatilla Electric Cooperative, stated in and email that approximately 2,500 customers were without power at the peak of the windstorm. Monday, with most people impacted were those north and east of Hermiston, those along Highway 730 in Umatilla and those in the Meacham area. Only about 140 people in scattered locations remained without power as of noon Tuesday.