It was a very bad place for a wildfire.
Granted, in this summer of drought and record-breaking heat, there is no good place for a wildfire to start in Northeastern Oregon.
But the upper part of the Rock Creek Canyon, in the Elkhorn Mountains about 13 miles northwest of Baker City, is a decidedly dangerous spot for a blaze.
Aerial photos illustrate the threat, showing the nearly contiguous carpet of conifer trees. Worse still, many of these trees are subalpine firs, a species that burns with unusual vigor due in part to the concentrations of flammable oil in its needles.
Then there is the issue of access for firefighters.
Mainly, there isn’t any. Not the rapid access afforded by roads, anyway. There isn’t a road within a mile of the Rock Creek Fire, which was reported Monday afternoon, Aug. 30.
The fire was moving fast. Flames were engulfing entire trees — “torching” — and spreading from crown to crown. A cold front was moving through, spurring wind gusts that worsened the situation.
Then the aircraft arrived.
In the several crucial hours Monday, Aug. 30 — when not a single firefighter was on the ground in the area; fire officials said it was too dangerous to have crews rappel from a helicopter — a fleet of five tankers dropping retardant and two helicopters dumping water kept the fire in check. There’s no way to be sure, of course — wildfire is nothing if not unpredictable — but it’s reasonable to believe that without that rapid and aggressive aerial campaign, the fire would still be spreading today.
With massive blazes burning elsewhere in Oregon, California, Idaho and other Western states, it’s fortunate that the aircraft were available so rapidly.
We don’t want to have to rely on good fortune.
Not with tens of thousands of acres, in the Elkhorns and across the region, vulnerable to fire until the first widespread autumn rainstorm.