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Progress seen on 27,000-acre Warm Springs Fire

By Barney Lerten
Katie Higgins
Published On: Aug 06 2014 09:30:44 AM CDT
Updated On: Jul 19 2014 10:16:37 AM CDT

NewsChannel 21 photojournalist Steve Kaufmann was back on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation Thursday, checking the current status of the wind-driven Shaniko Butte Fire

WARM SPRINGS, Ore. -

The firefighting army tackling the 27,000-acre Shaniko Butte Fire grew to over 560 Friday and the containment figure also doubled, to 20 percent. They reported progress Saturday on the north end and along the river, but still have concern the blaze would soon jump the Deschutes River and move farther east.

Four Oregon National Guard helicopters are set to join the aerial fight over the weekend on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation, as the fire spread east to the Deschutes River and threatens to jump it.

Saturday morning, officials said crews held the line on the west flank of the fire near the community of Simnasho for two days and some have now been reassigned. Tribal authorities have dropped the Level 2 notification for homes on the 300 Road to Level 1,  "meaning the residents can relax a little from their readiness to leave at a moment's notice, but they still need to be aware of the nearby fire threat."

A hotshot crews corralled the north end of the fire late Thursday and early Friday, followed by other crews able to get in front of the fire and seal off its northern spread.

Heavier fuels on the break from the Mutton Mountains down to the Deschutes River tend to hold fire until the wind builds enough to cause the fire to spread downhill through grasses to the next concentration of heavy fuels.

Firefighters reversed that process and interrupted the cycle by igniting fuels at the bottom of the slope which quickly ascended the slopes to remove fuel from the fire’s path. In this way eight miles of the river’s edge were buffered from the spreading wildfire without a single spot fire being observed on the opposite shore.

Further burnout activity is planned for Saturday morning and afternoon, and as a result the residents of homes near Kaskela along the Deschutes River have been issued a Level 1 Evacuation Notice by the Wasco County Sheriff’s Office.

Though no spot fires have been observed on the east side of the river, fire officials acknowledge the potential for sparks to blow across the river, and want nearby residents to be aware of the threat.

Four National Guard helicopters are expected to arrive this afternoon and will be stationed at the Madras airport. These aviation resources will be shared with other nearby fires.

In the late Friday night update at http://inciweb.nwcg.gov/incident/3960/ fire managers wrote of that concern:

"Perimeter has reached the Deschutes River and is predicted to continue to spread north and east. Within 24 hours there is considerable risk that fire will cross the Deschutes River and spread east."

“The river seems like a formidable barrier to the fire,” said Incident Commander Shawn Sheldon said early Friday. “But to the sparks flying in 20 mph winds, the river is no barrier at all.”

The growing army of firefighters, at 562 by late Friday, are doing their best to watch for and suppress any spots that start burning across the river, Sheldon added.

And they were making progress: The late-Friday update from fire officials also doubled the containment figure, from 10 to 20 percent.

As BNSF Railway and the National Guard offered assistance from the tracks and from the air, firefighters said defensible space around the few homes in the small riverside town of Dant helped keep them from being destroyed by the fast-growing, challenging fire.

A special BNSF Railway “fire train” is standing by near Madras, ready to use its water tanks and cannons to spray the sides of the tracks in areas where vehicles or people cannot easily otherwise reach, officials said. The railroad also has offered to help move firefighting resources if needed, they added.

More than 30 miles of the Lower Deschutes River, from Trout Creek to Long Bend, remained closed for a second day Friday due to the fire threat on the west from the Shaniko Butte Fire and on the east from the Ward Canyon blaze. Crews conducted burnout along 20 miles of the river on Friday.

Officials said the south side of the fire was burning in an area of downed trees killed in the Sunnyside Turnoff Fire, which burned over 51,000 acres on the reservation a year ago.

"As downed logs burn and snags torch out, embers are carried downhill toward the Deschutes River," they said.

The Oregon National Guard will be bringing in four helicopters – two Chinook, two Blackhawk – to help the firefighting effort. They are expected to arrive Saturday and will be based at Madras Airport.

The fire was “very active” on Thursday, burning down to the river at the small hamlet at Dant. An uninhabited, historical mining outbuilding was lost, officials said, but no other structures burned. Crews stayed in and near the area through the night, working to save homes and other structures along the river.

Fire crews also credited the pre-clearing of brush from around the homes at Dant for helping to save them from burning.

“The pre-clearing was especially helpful, because the incident management team is utilizing scarce resources to protect structures and focus on public safety,” said Friday’s update from Oregon Interagency Incident Management Team No. 1.

While 10 percent of the perimeter was contained, officials said late Thursday there was “considerable risk” the fire would spread east beyond the now-closed lower Deschutes River.

Officials also advised a burnout operation could occur Friday, bringing more highly visible smoke and fire near the west side of the Deschutes River and northwest of Kaskela. Crews, helicopters and other resources planned to patrol downwind to find and put out any spot fires.

"The burnout activity is necessary to stop the southeastern spread of the fire," officials said.

You can get the latest details and maps of the fire at the InciWeb page at http://inciweb.nwcg.gov/incident/3960/ .

“In the next 48 hours, there is considerable risk that the fire will cross the Deschutes River and spread east,” the Thursday night update stated.

A temporary fire camp, called a “spike camp,” has been established in the Maupin area to reduce travel time and protect structures in the area, the update added.

The fire is one of dozens sparked by hundreds of lightning strikes from Sunday’s thunderstorms on or near the reservation.

The National Weather Service has a red flag warning in place until 11 p.m. Friday for winds and low relative humidity.

Road closures include the S-300/Hwy. 3 Junction and Red Lake Cemetery Rd/Hwy. 3 Jct.

A late-Wednesday update also offered the frightening specter that the blaze could become a "mega fire."

“This may be the initial phase of a long-running fire that may (rise) to mega status,” stated the updated incident overview n the fire’s InciWeb page.

According to a 2011 report by the Wildfire Research Network, a proposed definition of a mega fire is one that:

-Starts near or in a high fire danger area during approaching or actual red flag conditions.

-Escapes initial attack

-Develops into a “campaign fire” covering a large area

-Requires thousands of firefighters and extensive additional resources to bring final containment, and

-Often causes huge property and other cultural losses in addition to vegetation destroyed.

“Most of these fires cost $75-100 million each in suppression costs alone, plus property and other resources destroyed,” the report said.

Officials announced late Tuesday that the fire claimed a house on Monday morning when it kicked up after subsiding the first night.

Monday's hot, windy weather made for combustible conditions and even prompted movement of the planned Wednesday stage of the Cascade Cycling Classic back to a route closer to Bend.

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