Wildland firefighters in northeast Oregon faced their first big test of the 2017 fire season over the weekend after three large blazes erupted in relatively short order, at least two of which were human-caused.
The largest of the bunch, the Bear Butte Fire, was first reported Friday afternoon within a mile of Anthony Lakes Mountain Resort in the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest. Authorities quickly evacuated the resort, along with Anthony Lakes Campground and cabins in the immediate area.
As of Monday, the fire was holding steady at about 500 acres. Road closures are in effect while crews work to strengthen fire lines, including Forest Service Road 73 from the North Fork John Day Campground to the national forest boundary. The Elkhorn Crest Trail is also closed from the trailhead to the Summit Trail junction.
On Sunday, a Type 2 incident management team composed of 300 mostly local firefighters and three helicopters arrived to take command of the Bear Butte Fire, which is now 10 percent contained. The cause of the fire has not yet been determined.
Elsewhere, people have been determined the cause of the 222-acre Indian Lake Fire started Friday in Umatilla County, and the 301-acre Clarks Creek Fire which was reported seven miles southeast of Elgin on private forestland.
Jamie Knight, spokeswoman with the Oregon Department of Forestry, said the Indian Lake Fire is 65 percent contained and burning on a mix of lands protected by ODF, the Forest Service and Bureau of Indian Affairs. It is not certain whether any structures were damaged, Knight said Monday afternoon. No closures have been issued for the area.
The Clarks Creek Fire, meanwhile, is now 80 percent contained. Crews on both fires are working to strengthen lines and mop up hot spots, Knight said.
“All in all, things are looking pretty good,” she said.
Smoky skies, however, may linger for another week, affecting local air quality. The National Weather Service in Pendleton has issued another air quality alert through noon Saturday for Grant, Umatilla, Morrow, Union, Wallowa, Wheeler, Gilliam and Sherman counties.
Meteorologist Mike Murphy said a low pressure system is expected to move into the area Saturday, bringing winds out of the west, which will help to clear out the haze. Thunderstorms and lighting may also be in the forecast, which would likely mean more fires given how hot and dry the forests have been.
Matt Howard, unit forester for ODF in Wallowa, said the formula they use to determine how ripe conditions are for burning — known as the energy release component — is at extreme levels around the Northeast Oregon District, thanks to months of below-average precipitation and record heat.
“We have transitioned quickly, and we are now in a critical period in our summer for fire danger,” Howard said.
Coming off a wet winter with above-average snowpack, Howard said grasses were growing taller and thicker than in previous years heading into spring. Now, those same grasses are dry, cured and ready to burn.
With lightning potentially on the horizon, Howard urged people to take care when recreating in the forest to avoid causing more unnecessary human fires and straining firefighting resources.
“We really don’t want to be messing with human-caused fire when we’ve got lightning like that coming in,” he said.
Out of 74 total fires reported this year by the Blue Mountain Interagency Dispatch Center, 30 have been human-caused, burning 1,298 acres.
“They’re taking quite a few resources to gain the upper hand on some of these incidents,” Howard said.
ODF lands are in a regulated use closure, prohibiting all open fires except at designated locations. Property owners also cannot use a chainsaw, weld metal or mow dried grass with power-driven equipment between the hours of 10 a.m. and 8 p.m.
On the Malheur, Umatilla and Wallowa-Whitman national forests, chainsaw use is prohibited at all hours. Under Phase C public use restrictions on the Malheur, campfires are banned.
On Forest Service and ODF lands, off-road vehicle travel is not allowed, and smoking is prohibited in the woods except in vehicles, boats or cleared areas.
Howard said it is the public’s responsibility to know what restrictions are in place within each jurisdiction before heading out.
For more information, visit fs.usda.gov/malheur or bmidc.org.