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Red flag warning back; new fires kept small (so far)

By John Hendricks
Published On: Aug 07 2013 01:23:20 AM CDT
Updated On: Aug 12 2013 06:25:43 PM CDT
Clarno lightning Kiara and Gianna Pineda

Kiara and Gianna Pineda

Lightning crackles down as storms move through the Clarno area in north-central Oregon Saturday evening

CAMP SHERMAN, Ore. -

Central Oregon firefighters responded to four small apparent lightning-sparked fires Sunday in the Ochocos as crews continued to tackle small blazes and wait to see if more “sleeper” fires – and more lightning – keep them on the run.

Two of the new blazes – all less than a quarter-acre in size – were found north of the Ochoco Mountains and two on the Ochoco National forest, according to the Central Oregon Interagency Dispatch Center.

Monday morning, officials said those four fires were the only new ones in the region in the past 24 hours, with no new ones seen overnight -- and all of the weekend blazes were either in final mop-up or patrol status.

The biggest new fire of the weekend in the COIDC area burned nine acres of BLM land on Alder Mountain, 10 miles west of the town of spray.

But crews will be alert and patrol this week, officials said, watching for new starts or holdover files "that may pop up from one of the largest lightning storms to hit the region in the last decade."

Meanwhile, two more air tankers and an air attack plane to direct aerial firefighting work were dispatched Sunday from the Redmond tanker base to the Jo Jo Fire on Washington’s Yakama Indian Reservation, the Central Oregon Interagency Dispatch Center in Prineville said.

Firefighters reported 95 percent containment late Sunday of the 1,510-acre Green Ridge Fire near Camp Sherman, with full containment expected Monday as mop-up and repair of suppression damage will continue into the new week. The firefighting force has dropped to below 400, but officials said the fire will remain staffed throughout the week.

More smoke reports continued to come in and crews headed out Sunday after the latest thunderstorms, including 14 reports Saturday evening, mostly in and around the Ochoco Mountains, where a storm cell moved through, officials said.

The new fires were caught small, but everyone was keeping an eye on the forests and the sky.

"So far, troops on the ground are finding a lot of them," COIDC spokesman Nick Mickel said Sunday, though he noted some reported in by lookouts aren't found. "We're afraid some of those will pop up later," as temperatures warm again, he added.

The High Desert's red flag warning for extreme fire behavior was lifted Sunday -- but not for long.

The storm threat lingers into a new week, as the National Weather Service issued a new red flag warning from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday for more thunderstorms "producing abundant lightning" on the Deschutes National Forest and at higher elevatons of the High Desert.

Central Oregon got its share of about 14,000 lightning strikes reported in Oregon and southern Washington from Friday's thunderstorms, but initial attack crews caught the nearly three-dozen newly discovered fires at small sizes without needing more help.

On Saturday, air tankers out of Redmond were sent east to the Cedar Mountain Fire, southwest of Vale, and to a new south to the big fires in southern Oregon and north to a new start near a 2-week-old fire near Wenatchee, Washington.

There's been a lot of rain with the storms, thankfully -- but Mickel said fire bosses know well that many "sleeper fires" could lie waiting to emerge in coming dry weather.

"It takes three, four, five days to show up," he said. "They sit under rain, the wind will hit them, then next week it warms up and -- hang onto our hats."

Friday evening, the Katalo Butte area southwest of Bend has six reported smokes one of the more heavily impacted areas. The other smoke reports are scattered over the  region.

Meanwhile, the Green Ridge Fire, burning for over a week 14 miles northwest of Sisters, has grown to 1,510 acres, but as of Sunday morning  was 85 percent contained, with fire managers confident it will be declared fully contained Sunday evening.

The firefighting force again slowly shrank Saturday, to 511 personnel.  A new area closure implemented Friday night east of the fire remained in effect, though it did not close Forest Road 11.

Light smoke may still be seen in the Metolius Basin as areas within the fire's perimeter burn, but staff have begun moving on to other fires. Command of the fire is set to be transferred back to the Sisters Ranger District at 6 a.m. Monday.

Light rain fell over the fire area Friday afternoon, as crews reported excellent progress with line improvement and mop-up along the eastern flank. A burnout operation along the southwestern flank went well, officials said.

Visit the Deschutes National Forest web site for details.  http://www.fs.usda.gov/alerts/centraloregon/alerts-notices. Additional Green Ridge Fire information is also available at http://www.inciweb.org/incident/3594/.

By 6 p.m. Friday, smokejumpers and other initial-attack crews had been sent out on most of the 18 smoke reports, ranged from west of Mt. Bachelor to east of Alfalfa, along with a couple from the western side of the Ochoco National Forest.

A National Weather Service weather spotter near Suplee in Crook County reported three-quarters inch of rain in 12 minutes, and still coming down, with a half-inch to inch of standing water in the area and hail less than a dime in diameter.

Just north of Prineville, a SkyWarn spotter recorded a quarter-inch of rain in 10 minutes, also with standing water on roads and in yards.        

Strong thunderstorms were tracked northwest of Bend and southeast of Mt. Jefferson, moving into Wheeler and Grant counties as the evening progressed.

As firefighters moved toward containment of the Green Ridge Fire near Camp Sherman, authorities warned Friday of a new threat to the already-burned area, along with more lightning – flash flooding.

The NWS posted a flash flood watch for 11 a.m. Friday through Sunday evening for the east slopes of the Oregon Cascades, warning of thunderstorms with heavy rain -- which is just what moved in late Friday afternoon.

“This may cause flash flooding, especially in the areas of the Green Ridge Fire burn scar north of Sisters in Jefferson County and another large fire burn scar southwest of Sisters in Deschutes County,” apparently from last year’s major Pole Creek Fire.

A flash flood watch means conditions could develop that lead to flash flooding, which forecasters warned “is a very dangerous situation.” They urged residents to “monitor later forecasts and be prepared to take action should flash flood warnings be issued.”

The NWS also has a red flag warning for scattered thunderstorms with abundant lightning over the same time frame, Friday morning through Sunday evening.

They said most storms, fortunately, will have rain with them -- up to a quarter-inch, or much more in spots -- but the possible winds up to 40 mph and small hail won't help. "Frequent lightning and critically dry fuels may result in numerous fire starts," the warning said.

For those wishing to visit the Camp Sherman area and enjoy the Metolius River, businesses are open and look forward to serving all your recreational needs. Six popular campgrounds remain open along the Metolius River, but three campgrounds are closed: Lower Bridge, Allen Springs and Pioneer Ford.

Earlier story:

With the Green Ridge flames moving east and away from Camp Sherman, those who live in the popular tourist spot say they want to get the word out: They are open for business.

"It is a part of life in this area," Camp Sherman Store owner Roger White said of the late-summer wildfires. "It kind of just depends on where you live and what the natural event is. If you live in Hawaii, you are worried about tsunamis."

White has owned the store for 18 years, and just about every summer, a wildfire sparks in the area -- the biggest the B&B Complex a decade ago that headed off a presidential visit (he stopped in Redmond instead.)

White noted that around Camp Sherman, there is several thousand acres of fire break.

"The silver lining to everyone of these fires is there is that much more fire break that will really stop fires from racing around," White said.

Several miles from the small community, the roar of six helicopters filled the air. They lifted thousands of gallons of water from the Metolius River up the ridge to try and cool hot spots. Witnesses said the fire went over the crest of the ridge Wednesday morning.

"They have us at a far enough distance," Camp Sherman resident Emily Jendzejec said. "Just from the occasional helicopter and smoke, things seem to be relatively safe from where we are."

Jendezejec was also one of the 100 people who attended a community meeting Monday night.

"They told us it started from lightning and they were on it," Jendezejec said. "They seemed really calm, and that gave me a reason to be calm and safe."

As the aerial assault continued Tuesday night, there was one message businesses in Camp Sherman want out: They're open.

"The river is fishing good, the scenery is great, the weather is beautiful, the ice is cold -- and so is the beer," White said.

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