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Pole Creek Fire containment now at 15 percent

By Barney Lerten
John Hendricks
Published On: Sep 12 2012 09:17:38 PM CDT
Updated On: Sep 18 2012 12:46:29 AM CDT
Pole Creek Suzie Downing

Suzie Downing

Two miles east of Sisters off Hwy. 126, a Kiger Mustang named Spirit paid no attention to the wildfire smoke clouds billowing overhead Friday evening

SISTERS, Ore. -

Another packed crowd of Sisters-area residents heard some hopeful news from the lines of the Pole Creek Fire on Monday evening, as the containment figure crept up to 15 percent.

Fire managers told the residents that number, up from 10 percent, could increase substantially if all goes well over the next few days on the nearly 17,000-acre blaze.

However they also said the fire could still grow sizably, due to large amounts of dead and down fuels. They also said the smoke which has caused choking early-morning conditions in Sisters could be visible for weeks -- until a big push of moisture, or even the first snowfall, snuffs it out for good.

The Pole Creek Fire that tripled in size in a day late last week grew by a relatively small amount -- only 500 acres - on Sunday, but authorities said Monday it's now moved to within about five miles of Sisters, a mile closer than last week.

Meanwhile, shifting winds Sunday blew heavy smoke into areas from Bend to La Pine, giving more of the High Desert the watery eyes encountered in Sisters for the past week.

An overnight infrared flight pegged the fire's size at 16,500 acres. The firefighting force grew to 1,100 over the weekend. More than a week after the fire began, officials say they are still investigating what caused it.

The fire did remain active, with some more "short-range spotting," officials said Monday morning, but the weather actually turned in crews advantage, allowing them to reinforce some fire lines, establish others and begin building contingency lines.

Suppression efforts are focused on the north, south and east sides of the fire, with new, secondary containment lines being strengthened and added.

Firefighters also are preparing for the expected warmer, drier conditions through the week, which could again test the containment lines.

"A strong inversion kept smoke low to the ground for most of the day, which permeated several surrounding communities, including Sisters" once again, a 9 p.m. Sunday update said. "Smoky conditions are expected to remain in the area for the next few days due to a temperature inversion over the fire."

The fire now has covered more than 25 square miles. After tripling in size on Friday, Saturday saw the fire grow by "only" about 1,000 acres.

A spot fire on the fire's northeast corner was lined Saturday night, down into Whychus Creek, officials said.

"Fire suppression conditions have improved with the return of an easterly wind flow, coupled with moderate temperatures and higher humidity," Sunday morning's update said.

However, the shifting winds also blew significant smoke into Bend Sunday morning, making the air "unhealthy for sensitive groups," according to the DEQ's Air Quality Index. The smoke was so thick, the city's iconic Pilot and Awbrey Buttes were barely visible from a distance.

But on the DEQ's Wildfire Air Quality Index, based on an 8-hour (rather than 24-hour) reading, Bend was in the "unhealthy" level for all residents and Sisters again was at the worst, "hazardous" air-quality reading, before things began to improve at midday Sunday.

Deschutes County sheriff's deputies also reminded that a large area south and west of Sisters is under a closure order, for public and firefighter safety.

The fire has cost $5.6 million to fight so far, according to Monday's national situation report from the National Interagency Fire Center.

You can find the latest info on the fire, as well as maps and other details, at the InciWeb site, http://www.inciweb.org/incident/3244/

This information was included in the 9 p.m. Saturday update:

Residents in the Crossroads and Edgington/Remuda areas remain under a Level 2, pre-evacuation alert (west of the 16 Road and South of Highway 20 in the vicinity of Sisters):

· Dangerous conditions exist - be prepared to leave at a moment's notice.

· Public safety agencies will keep public updated about when to leave and which routes to take.

· Persons with special needs or in need of assistance should be moved at this time.

· Large animals should be moved at this time.

In the event that there is a need for evacuation, citizens in affected areas will receive a call from 911 Dispatch with a recorded message with specific evacuation information. To receive these messages on cell phones, citizens are encouraged to visit http://www.deschutes.org/9-1-1-Service-District/Citizen-Emergency-Notification-System-%28CENS%29.aspx and register their numbers with the Citizen Alert program.

"At this time, there are no towns, subdivisions or structures under immediate threat of evacuation.," the update stated.

But county officials renewed their warning to residents south of Sisters on Saturday to be ready to leave quickly, noting that the still-growing fire was butting up against several "evaluation lines" in the area.

Dozens of Sisters area residents packed into the elementary school Saturday morning for a briefing on the fire and what challenges the crews are facing. A fire meteorologist, fire behavior specialist and safety officer spoke to the crowd.

The Palmer family has lived in the area for about a year and half, and this is their first big fire threat they've seen.

"We live really really close to it, and there's a lot of smoke, "said Jason Palmer. "The ashes are falling on our house, and the kids can't really breathe."

The Palmers are one of many families who are on level two pre-evacuation notices.

"So if we need to just take all of our dogs and our stuff, we're just going to go," Palmer said. "We're from Central California, and we don't get stuff like this. So it's a little different. It's kind of scary."

For more information on the status of evacuations, call 541-550-4886 for the most up to date information.

For fire information you can call: 541-549-6935 or 541-549-6934

The Deschutes County Sheriff’s Office conducted another Level 2 pre-evacuation alert on Saturday through a recorded Emergency Phone Notification utilizing the reverse 9-1-1 system.

They reminded citizens to be prepared to leave at a moment’s notice. The alert went out to the areas of Crossroads, Edgington and Remuda Roads and the south side of the city of Sisters.

This Level 2 pre-evacuation alert was initiated due to "increased fire behavior that has occurred over the past 24 hours and to remind citizens they should remain highly vigilant during these situations," said the Saturday afternoon statement.

The sheriff’s office has continued to work closely with the Oregon Incident Management Team 4 on the latest fire status, they said.

Dozens of Sisters area residents packed into the elementary school Saturday morning for a briefing on the fire and what challenges the crews are facing. A fire meteorologist, fire behavior specialist and safety officer spoke to the crowd.

The Palmer family has lived in the area for about a year and half, and this is their first big fire threat they've seen.

"We live really really close to it, and there's a lot of smoke, "said Jason Palmer. "The ashes are falling on our house, and the kids can't really breathe."

The Palmers are one of many families who are on level two pre-evacuation notices.

"So if we need to just take all of our dogs and our stuff, we're just going to go," Palmer said. "We're from Central California, and we don't get stuff like this. So it's a little different. It's kind of scary."

Fire crews in the region scrambled to several small new fire starts Friday night after dry lightning peppered the area, while ash fell over a far wider area than the smoke itself, including Bend and Redmond.

Officials warned drivers could expect areas of limited visibility on highways 20, 126 and 242. Hwy. 242 (the McKenzie Pass Highway) was closed for a few hours Saturday morning for firefighters to access the blaze. It was reopened by mid-morning, "subject to intermittent closure," according to ODOT.

For firefighter and public safety, the large closure area was modified Friday to include a portion of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) between Trail #3531(Four in One Cone) and the PCT Trailhead on Highway 242.

Information will be posted at all trailheads and access points from Elk Lake Trailhead north to Santiam Pass. PCT hikers will have a reroute options.

The closure still includes Forest Roads 15 & 16 (Three Creeks Rd); spur roads, trailheads and the Three Creeks Campground area. It now also includes an extension of Forest Road 370 to Forest Road 4601.

Closed roads are signed, barricaded, and/or staffed to advise the public of the closure. Closure maps and area descriptions are available at Deschutes National Forest offices as well as http://inciweb.org/incident/3244/.

In a rare voluntary health advisory, Deschutes County health officials have advised residents to "shelter in place" and seal their homes as best as possible during the worst of the smoke in the overnight and early morning hours.

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