DAYVILLE – Firefighters felt they were making good progress on lines between the Murderers Creek South Fire and the smaller Buck Fork Fire to the southeast last Thursday.
Then, in almost a moment, the air inversion that had clamped over the area like a lid on a stewpot lifted – and gusty, shifting winds swirled in.
“It was like flipping a switch,” said Nick Lunde, deputy commander for Oregon Interagency Incident Management Team 4.
The Buck Fork Fire raged north and pushed across to the east side of the South Fork of the John Day River, roared across the Deer Creek flats and burned through the fire lines as if they were invisible.
The two fires had merged.
Incident Commander Brian Watts said that event was the biggest disappointment in a week’s worth of efforts.
“In two hours, we lost four days of work,” he said. “And our people took that very hard.”
Watts and Lunde were among a cadre of fire officials who spoke last Saturday evening at the Dayville Community Hall, updating residents on the South Fork Complex fire growing just five miles south of town.
The meeting drew about 75 residents after a week in which the complex spread to more than 60,000 acres. At press time, it was reported at 63,516 acres.
At the meeting, representatives of the Ochoco and Malheur National Forests, the Bureau of Land Management and the Oregon Department of Forestry joined interagency incident management team leaders to discuss the fire and answer some questions.
Officials cited an array of factors – capricious fire conditions, steep and inaccessible terrain, unusually dry fuels, and a scarcity of resources – that continue to challenge the efforts to stop the blazes.
Lunde noted the tight resources even as Team 4 took over the South Fork Complex on Saturday, Aug. 2.
“At the time, we had four dozers – count ’em, four – and that was all,” he said.
Resources are thin due to all the fires raging across the West, he said. In addition to local and regional resources, the South Fork fire drew crews from as far as Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, and North Carolina.
It takes time, though, to mobilize people from so far, “and fire doesn’t wait for people to arrive,” he said.
The meeting also introduced the community to a new fire management team for the complex, the national Pacific Northwest Team 3, commanded by Ed Lewis.
Watts noted the shift brings in a crew with more experience to handle the complexity of this kind of fire.
Noel Livingston, deputy incident commander for Team 3, was blunt about the situation ahead. He told the crowd a lot of fires are burning elsewhere, “and that prevents us from getting some of the resources we need to be successful.”
“We’d like to go direct and keep the fires as small as possible,” he said. “That may not be realistic.”
He said the new team is forming primary plans for attacking the fire, as well as contingency and even emergency plans.
Asked if any part of the fire had been put into the “let burn” category, Watts was emphatic.
“The answer is flat-out no,” he said.
The managers were seeking more air resources, and over the weekend the Oregon National Guard assigned four helicopters – two Blackhawks and two Chinooks – to join three choppers already working the complex.
Crews Monday were making the northwest line, between the fire and Dayville, a priority even as a new thunderstorm system moved into the area. Four Hotshot crews were building a direct line there, while other crews were working on primary and secondary lines on the perimeter to the south and east flanks of the fire.
A red flag warning remains in effect through Tuesday.
At the meeting and in later interviews, BLM officials outlined the start of the fire and the decisions made in the first hours of the incident.
Carol Benkosky, BLM Prineville District manager, said BLM and Forest Service crews were already working a spate of fires from earlier lightning storms; it was a busy time in a fire season that started much earlier than usual.
By the time the new storm moved over the Aldrich area that evening, there had already been about 645 fires in the central Oregon region – seven of them growing large enough to require bringing in incident management teams.
When the storm hit, the crew had already worked a long day.
Then the first of three South Fork fires – the Placid Creek Fire – was reported.
Two engines were dispatched but in the calm eye of the storm, the fire apparently had flattened out. The crews searched but, unable to find it, they returned to the base.
A short time later, a fire lookout reported the flare that would become the Murderers Creek South Fire. BLM officials noted later that one of the 18 “watchout situations” that firefighters keep in mind is arriving “in country not seen in daylight.”
This factor, along with the prior experience in the unsuccessful Placid Creek search, prompted the duty officer to hold off sending engines out again that night. It seemed fire crews would have better luck locating and attacking the fire in dawn’s light.
But more reports rolled in after midnight. The fire was growing.
The duty officer decided to send in firefighters. The crews got to the fire about 2 a.m., as the calm dissipated and the fire worsened.
“In one hour, it went from about 10 acres to 1,000 acres,” Benkosky said. Two hand crews staged at Dayville and a helicopter joined the effort first thing in the morning.
Just as firefighters arrived at Murderers Creek, a third fire – soon to be Buck Fork – was reported. The duty officer decided not to split the existing resources staged at Dayville Guard Station between the two but to order additional resources from Prineville to tackle that fire first thing in the morning.
They sent a Type III incident commander, three engines, a skidgeon, two Type II hand crews, and a water tender.
“It still wasn’t enough,” Benkosky said. The ground resources worked throughout the day with the assistance of two heavy air tankers and two helicopters. A DC10 air tanker, which can carry up to 12,000 gallons of retardant, also made two drops on the fire.
Even with the air support, the fire continued to grow. Benkosky said an interagency team was called in as soon as possible.
She noted the emotional toll on residents and land managers, saying “we value this property highly.”
“I know it’s burning in an area that you treasure, as much as we do,” she said.
However, in the quest for resources, it didn’t stack up against some other fires in the region that threatened lives and homes, she noted.
Watts said while cabins and ranch properties in the area were threatened by fire, none had burned as of the weekend. He said protecting those areas was a priority, as was the protection of Aldrich Lookout and the communications station there.
Meanwhile, officials were keeping a wary eye on the weather, as a red flag warning for fire conditions and more thunderstorms was issued to last through Wednesday.
Roy Walker, fire service officer for the Malheur, noted the tinder-dry fuels in the region. He said the grass is “totally cured – it’s just burning like paper.”
One front of the fire has burned into the old Thorn Fire, where there are lots of snags and downed wood, and officials were hoping that would hold the fire and give them a chance to contain it.
At a glance
South Fork Complex
As of Monday, Aug. 111
Start date: July 31, 2014
Size: 63,516 acres
Resources: 25 crews, seven helicopters, 37 engines, 8 dozers, 11 water tenders
Burning south of Dayville on state, federal and private lands