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Lightning sparks new fires; others allowed to burn

Published On: Sep 16 2013 04:09:03 PM CDT   Updated On: Sep 16 2013 04:12:02 PM CDT
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Several lightning strikes hit the northeast area of Central Oregon on Sunday, igniting a handful of fires crews have responded to, officials said Monday,

One incident is under investigation and estimated at 200 acres.  Aerial detection flights will be flown Monday, looking for any other fires that have not been located, the Central Oregon Interagency Dispatch Center in Portland.

The weather for the next couple of days is expected to be mostly cloudy and cooler, warming up again on Thursday.  Friday will bring another possibility of precipitation to Central Oregon, officials said.
Crews were working Monday on Incident 813 (McDonald Ferry), located on the John Day River near Old Oregon Trail on BLM land, which was estimated at 200 acres late Sunday night.   
The Whiskey Springs Fire on the Ochoco National Forest was at 60 acres and continues to smolder in heavy dead and downed fuels from the old Hash Rock Fire. It is located a mile east of Whiskey Springs on FS Road 27 and was started by lightning on Sept. 5.

There are numerous fire-killed snags in the area, making it unsafe for firefighters to engage directly.  The fire is expected to continue to smoke and occasionally flare up until the area receives rain or snow.

Crews have identified containment opportunities outside of the old fire area and are taking steps to ensure the fire remains confined to that area.  'Fire Activity Ahead' signs are posted along the 27 road as travelers approach the fire.  While the 27 road remains open to the public, drivers are urged to use caution while traveling through the area.
The Sam Davis Fire on the Ochoco National Forest has burned 272 acres and is located a mile east of Toggle Meadows, south of FS Road 12, and was started by lightning on Sept,. 7.

Given the time of year and favorable weather conditions, crews are using existing roads for containment opportunities and using drip torches and burn out operations to secure established containment lines. The strategy is allowing the fire to consume accumulations of hazardous fuels and minimizes risk to firefighters.

When completed, the final perimeter is expected to be about 350 acres. While no formal closure is in place, the public is encouraged to avoid the fire area.

Meanwhile, Forest Service fuels specialists are beginning to use prescribed fire to burn about 2,600 acres on the Ochoco National Forest over the next two weeks.
The 'Zane' burning project is located about 15 miles south of Mitchell, Oregon, and two miles east of Big Summit Prairie. The goal of fire specialists is to reduce hazardous fuels and introduce fire back into the ponderosa pine ecosystem by burning between 500 and 800 acres.

Ignition was expected begin today, September 16th, and is expected to continue up to 5 days, from today through Friday, September 20th.  No smoke impacts are expected on major highways, although FS Road 30 may be impacted with smoke and fire traffic.  
The 'Gray Prairie' burning project is located about 12 miles northeast of Post and six miles south of Big Summit Prairie.  Fire specialists intend to reduce the risk of high severity fire by reducing surface and ladder fuels on about 1,850 acres.  

Once begun, ignition operations are expected to last up to five days, tentatively occurring from Sept. 21-26.  No major smoke impacts are expected on highways; however, smoke may settle into the Highway 380 corridor in the evenings.  FS Road 4230 will be affected with smoke and fire traffic.  
If smoke drifts onto roads, motorists should slow down, turn on headlights and proceed with care. Once ignited, projects are patrolled by firefighters until they pose no further risk of escape.

Fuels specialists will follow policies outlined in the Oregon Department of Forestry smoke management plan, which governs prescribed fires, and attempts to minimize impacts to visibility and public health. For more information, visit the Ochoco/Deschutes website at


Here's a news release Monday from the Oregon Department of Forestry about a successful summer for initial-attack crews preventing more major wildfires on state-protected lands:

The Central Oregon District of the Oregon Department of Forestry has experienced several large wildfires this summer. But a little-known and perhaps more important story is the number of wildfires that could have burned thousands of acres more but did not because of aggressive initial attack by the district's firefighters and cooperating agencies that stopped their spread.

The Central Oregon District is huge. It spans 10 Oregon counties from Hood River to Burns and La Pine to Long Creek. The district's 35 permanent employees and 75 seasonal firefighters have fire protection responsibility for 2.2 million acres of forest and range lands.

The big fires that have made the news: Box Springs northeast of Prineville in early July, Grouse Mountain near John Day in early August, and the Government Flats Complex southwest of The Dalles later that same month together burned close to 24,000 acres, destroyed four homes, and cost tens of millions of dollars to contain.  

But the Central Oregon District has a goal to not make the news. To accomplish this, they strive each fire season to meet an ODF statewide performance measure of suppressing at least 97 percent of detected wildfires in its jurisdiction at 10 acres or less. Communities; infrastructure, such as transmission lines; and economic concerns, such as industrial timber lands and grazing lands are high priorities for protection from fire damage. Aggressive initial attack to extinguish fires at the smallest possible size relies on having quick-mobilizing resources such as helicopters and ground-based firefighting.

The 2013 fire season started earlier than usual in Central Oregon. An early snow melt and warm temperatures in the spring quickly dried out dead plant growth remaining from 2012 and reduced the moisture content of live shrubs. The Burgess Road Fire near La Pine in early May was a clear signal that forests were ready to burn. The fire, caused by a wind storm that toppled power lines, was particularly challenging because most of the district's seasonal firefighters had not yet reported for summer work.  

Prineville Assistant Unit Forester Ben Duda believes the long-standing coordination between ODF and the La Pine Rural Fire Department, federal partners, and private contractors, along with quick access to inmate fire crews, was critical for ODF to successfully stop the fire that was threatening timber and nearby homes.

"Our mutual aid can't be beat," said Duda. "Our approach to wildfires is shared by our federal and local partner agencies, and that is that everyone should be concerned about every fire."

This philosophy has resulted in a "closest-forces" strategy used throughout the district. Whenever a new fire is reported, regardless of its jurisdiction, aggressive initial attack with appropriate firefighting resources takes place seamlessly between the state, federal and local fire agencies. Whoever can get there first is dispatched to the fire.

Daily coordination of an ever-changing pool of available initial-attack resources takes place primarily through the Central Oregon and John Day Interagency Dispatch Centers in which ODF is a partner agency.

Duda recalled the Mustang Fire near Sisters as another great example of the closest-forces strategy at work.

That lightning-caused fire was reported by the Hinkle Butte Lookout at 4:30 p.m. on July 31. Initial attack started immediately, led by the Sisters-Camp Sherman Fire District and quickly joined by ground and aerial resources from ODF and the U.S. Forest Service.

The threat to nearby homes triggered evacuation alerts. By 6 p.m. the fire was already five acres but by 7 p.m. fire crews had stopped its growth at 10 acres. "A potentially much larger, more damaging fire was avoided," said Duda.   

Duda also noted that some of the engines responding to the Mustang Fire were made available through Oregon Special Purpose Authorization "fire severity" funds. The Oregon Legislature authorized these funds specifically for extra ODF firefighting resources during extreme fire conditions that exceed the capacity of normally budgeted agency resources.  

One other important piece of the Mustang Fire story is that while ODF initial attack resources were committed to the Mustang Fire, U.S. Forest Service firefighters were dispatched to suppress two other lightning fire starts on ODF jurisdiction. "We would have done the same for them," said Duda.

In The Dalles Unit of the Central Oregon District, Unit Forester David Jacobs has also endured a long fire season. With late spring temperatures reaching the 90s, his unit firefighters were already responding to fire reports, many of which were human-caused.

Extreme fire conditions persisted through the summer. Adding to the complexity of Jacob's job were the large fires burning elsewhere in the state to which some of his most experienced employees were dispatched to serve in management positions.  

"Planning for initial attack is a daily exercise," said Jacobs. "We look at the weather forecast, fuel moistures, available personnel and resources, and then make decisions on how best to prepare for any fires the day brings."

Jacobs is thankful for access to single-engine air tankers and additional fire engines funded through the Legislature's Wildfire Protection Act (WPA). "When lightning storms are in the forecast we have the ability to pre-position engine crews and the tankers for immediate initial attack on new fires," said Jacobs.

Jacobs cites the Walston Fire as one of his unit's success stories. Although the lightning fire burning in brush and grass west of Dufur grew to 330 acres, it could have been thousands of acres, given the winds and quick-burning fuels.

The rain that accompanied the lightning helped, but Jacobs also points out the important role played by local landowners and ranchers who responded to the fire. Two private dozers and eight ranch pumpers joined a pre-positioned Wildfire Protection Act engine and other ODF resources in fighting the fire.

"Having the WPA engine available and access to the landowners and their firefighting resources were critical in catching the Walston Fire," said Jacobs.

In the District's John Day Unit, Unit Forestry Rob Pentzer had a real trial by fire this summer. An already experienced fire manager from Idaho, Penzter admits he was still challenged when on August 7, just three weeks into his new Oregon job, his unit was confronted with two lightning fires starting in quick succession and both threatening homes on the outskirts of the city of John Day itself.

"The Marysville Fire was in the jurisdiction of the John Day Rural Fire Department," said Pentzer. "But we immediately joined them in the initial attack because of the direct threat to dozens of homes and other structures and also the threat of the fire spreading on to land ODF is responsible for protecting." No homes were lost, but with initial attack resources stretched to the limit, the nearby Grouse Mountain Fire escaped early attempts at containment and became the District's largest fire to date.  
Once an incident management team arrived to contain the Grouse Mountain Fire, its resources were available to assist the unit in initial attack on new starts. That happened on August 15 when the team participated with ODF in responding to the lightning-caused Eddington Gulch Fire located northwest of Mt. Vernon.

Two fire crews, two engines, a rappelling fire crew, two dozers, three helicopters, single-engine air tankers, and a heavy air tanker were all engaged in initial attack on the fire burning in grass, juniper, and sage. That blaze was contained at 25 acres.

As of September 6, the Central Oregon District reports it has been successful in controlling 87.5 percent of the wildfires on ODF-protected lands at 10 acres or less.

That percentage should increase as fall approaches and the potential for any more large fires diminishes.

"My goal is to keep all the fires in the Central Oregon District under our 10-acre statewide performance standard," said Central Oregon District Forester, George Ponte. "The reality is this fire season has seen extreme fire conditions and our initial attack resources cannot be everywhere all of the time. But I am proud of our fire managers, their crews, our contractors, and our cooperators for the work they do that results in most wildfires successfully contained with minimal resource damage."


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