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Lower Deschutes near fire reopens to rafting

By Barney Lerten
John Hendricks
Published On: Jul 20 2013 07:40:58 PM CDT
Updated On: Jul 23 2013 08:40:49 PM CDT

NewsChannel 21's Kim Tobin spoke with fire officials to get the latest update on the Sunnyside Turnoff fire that has burned more than 22,000 acres.

WARM SPRINGS, Ore. -

The 3-day-old, 22,300-acre Sunnyside Turnoff Fire on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation has slowed in spread, as containment reached 20 percent and some evacuees were allowed to return home. The fire reached the lower Deschutes River, prompting closure of a 39-mile stretch to rafters - but only for the day.

The blaze's new InciWeb page said the fire had a more precise infrared-flight mapping early Tuesday, at 22,320 acres, and was 20 percent contained.

Night operations made good progress prepping control lines and using burnouts to contain the fire on the east flank, they said. Tuesday's plan was to keep building and securing line and to try to keep the fire west of the Deschutes River -- but prepare for contingencies, if it crosses the river.

Residents have been allowed to return to the Kah-Nee-ta Resort and Charley Canyon areas, but they remain closed to the public, officials said. All other Warm Springs businesses remain open to visitors.

While the Charley Canyon area and the Kah-Nee-Ta Resort hamlet, where workers live, remained evacuated, fire spokesman Clay Penhollow said residents of the Wolfe Point area were allowed to return home.

Meanwhile, the Prineville BLM said Tuesday morning it was closing a nearly 30-mile stretch of the Lower Deschutes River as a precaution, as the fire had burned down to the river and has the potential to jump it, putting rafters in danger.

But the river segment was reopened at 6 p.m. Tuesday to rafting and camping, though officials warned visitors to be aware of and avoid spots where helicopters dip buckets in the river to fight the blaze.

Lisa Clark of the Central Oregon Interagency Dispatch Center in Prineville said rafters also should be careful hiking or camping in areas that recently burned, as there could be hot spots, root-holes, rolling rocks or other hazards.

If conditions change and the fire approaches the river, BLM could implement another emergency closure, Clark said.

The closure came at high season for rafters on the popular whitewater river.

Spreading smoke from the Warm Springs fire (and the one in northern Klamath County) also was starting to obscure the mountain views and put noticeable smoke in the air over much of the High Desert.

As of Tuesday evening, three DEQ Air Quality Index measurement stations at Bend, Madras and Prineville were reporting smoke in the "moderate" category.

'Aggressive firefighting' in early days commended

Monday night, the Oregon Interagency Incident Management Team No. 4 took  over management of the fire.

In its first news release, officials said there were 329 firefighters on the blaze, located 3-5 miles north of Warm Springs, and Highway 3 remained closed to public travel south from Simnasho and north of Highway26 out of Warm Springs.

Incident Commander Brian Watts commended the initial and extended attack resources for their safe and hard work, with their "aggressive firefighting:" efforts successful in protecting Kah-Nee-Ta Resort and homes throughout the fires; path.

The fire lies south of the Mutton Mountains, east of Highway 26, northeast of Upper Dry Creek Road and north and west of the Deschutes River.

The fire has now raced across nearly 35 square miles, based on the more precise mapping. It's believed to be human-caused, but the specific cause remains under investigation.

The fire forced more evacuations and threatened Kah-Nee-Ta Resort Sunday night, but the resort was spared damage.

The Northwest Coordination Center said one old uninhabited homestead in Charley Canyon has burned. It was used as an outbuilding.

The fire's fast spread Sunday forced mandatory evacuations of the Charley Canyon and Wolfe Point subdivisions, about 40 homes and 120 people.

Meanwhile, the roughly 200 people who were evacuated from other areas Saturday were allowed to return to their homes Sunday.

Kah-Nee-Ta also offered thanks on its Facebook page to the firefighters who protected the resort property in another sweltering day of 102-degree temperatures, also noting there have been no injuries or structures lost.

The Indian Head Casino, closed due to a power outage across the reservation early Sunday, reopened Sunday night, according to its Facebook announcement.

The Sunnyside Turnoff Fire, which started Saturday morning, raced across 10,000 acres of rangeland Saturday, forcing evacuations and road closures. It kicked up again in Sunday afternoon's heat.

Late Sunday afternoon, the fire escaped the line on the north side. Shortly before 4:30 p.m., a Level 3 mandatory evacuation notice was issued for about 40 homes and 120 people in the Charley Canyon and Wolfe Point subdivisions, Wilson.

It was a second day of evacuations and road closures as the return of afternoon heat and wind pushed the flames across the Warm Springs River to the north and also threatened Kah-Nee-Ta Resort, which was evacuated overnight.

One of the structural protection task forces, made up of firefighters called in from over a wide area, was in place at the resort village, threatened by approaching flames on the west and east flanks, said Assistant Fire Management Officer William Wilson.

At 2 p.m. Sunday, Wilson said the fire had slowed down on most of the perimeter, though some areas were showing more active fire behavior. He said the fire jumped the Warm Springs River by the Hwy. 3 bridge, burning on about 50 acres, but two crews and a heavy helicopter were getting "a good handle on it."

An overnight power outage hit the entire reservation around the same time as the resort guests were evacuated, though it was restored Sunday morning. The lodge itself has been closed since Thursday night due to an unrelated kitchen and attic fire that caused about $150,000 damage.

The Indian Head Casino along U.S. Highway 26 also was closed Sunday due to the power issues, Wilson said, but he stressed that the casino, highway and town of Warm Springs were not close to or threatened by the blaze, and the highway was fully open for travelers.

Meanwhile, crews tackled a 40-60 acre spot fire to the west Sunday, Wilson said, as temperatures climbed back toward 100 degrees on the second day of the fight.

Kristan Shobe said they were staying at the resort's RV park Saturday night and awakened at 2 a.m. Sunday to evacuate.

"It was a little unnerving, to say the least," Shobe wrote on KTVZ's Facebook page.

Kelly Hardgrave was staying in one of the resort village's teepees when the evacuation happened early Sunday. She said they had been told "that IF we were evacuated, we'd have a few hours' notice."

"But at 2 a.m. they came by and said NOW!," said Hardgrave, who shared a photo of the fiery view from the parking lot, taken as they evacuated.

"My 6-year-old didn't make it out with his shoes -- we bolted," she wrote. "Bikes and all camping stuff still at the teepee."

Cigarette may have started blaze

The human-caused, possibly sparked by a cigarette, was spotted around 10 a.m. Saturday and over the next few hours exploded across a wide area on a hot, windy afternoon, said Wilson said.

The wildfire moved fast across the rolling terrain of grass and sagebrush, prompting closure of BIA Highway 3 on the reservation, between Holliday Way and BIA Highway 8.

Earlier Sunday, Wilson said that if the burnouts work, the containment number could rise Sunday, but added that the fire "will reach 12,000 acres and perhaps 15,000" before it's stopped.

Wilson said much of the fire's growth late Saturday was tied to burnouts aimed at robbing the blaze of fuel, "although there was an escape that added some acreage."

The fire had been mapped using GPS at 6,400 acres (or 10 square miles) at 6 p.m. Saturday, and a new measurement was planned Sunday, if smoke lifted enough.

The fire stayed active well after nightfall after a day in which temperatures topped 100 degrees, but firefighters had managed to protect the structures and none were reported lost.

A mini-fire camp was set up Saturday night for 130 people, with fresh crews coming from across the region and state to help out exhausted local crews.

Around 10:30 p.m., Wilson said a major "firing" operation was underway in the Sunnyside subdivision, with crews and engines burning out a bulldozer line to try to keep the flames from reaching homes in the area.

Wilson warned residents to expect "a lot of flames and orange" overnight but that it was being done to protect the homes, and said no evacuations were "imminent yet."

Fire covers 10 square miles in 14 hours

In his 11:30 p.m. Saturday update posted to Facebook, Wilson told Sunnyside residents, "be prepared for an organized retreat if things go not as planned." He also said Kah-Nee-Ta was being put on alert at that time due to the expanding fire perimeter.

By midnight, Wilson said the fire was estimated at 10,000 acres -- that's more than 15 square miles.

"The sheer size is becoming problematic," he told NewsChannel 21, "with structure protection a priority. ... other equipment and support services are being mobilized. Containment is zero so far."

Earlier, Williams said the fire was likely to reach the banks of the Deschutes and Warm Springs rivers as the heat and winds return on Sunday.

Some homes along Dry Creek Road were evacuated Saturday afternoon, as was the Dry Creek campground.

Wilson said the blaze also approached homes in the Sunnyside and Wolfe Point communities, but those 70 to 100 homes were out of danger later Saturday.

No injuries have been reported.

Three structural task forces of outside fire crews were called up to protect homes as about 120 initial firefighters, two air tankers dropping retardant and a water-dropping helicopter worked to stop the blaze.

The regional structural task force of firefighters from across Central Oregon was called out Saturday evening to help protect homes from the blaze. Redmond and Black Butte did personnel callbacks to staff the units.

And across much of Central Oregon, smoke blowing southward from the fire could easily be seen as a thick layer of brown on the eastern horizon before sunset Saturday.

Warm Springs radio station KWSO reported around 8 p.m. that Central Oregon Task Force 2 was activated for more structural support as crews conducted a back-burn along Hwy. 3 from Webster Flat Road to Highway 8. More engine crews were brought in to defend the Wolfe Point subdivision, "just in case."

The fire was moving slowly down Eagle Butte toward the Warm Springs River and the reservation's fish hatchery.

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