Crews are scrambling to gain control of a nightmarish wildfire that’s devoured more than two dozen homes, scattered livestock and knocked out power less than a mile south of John Day.
The Canyon Creek Complex has grown to 48, 201 acres as of Wednesday, Aug. 19, by lightning and spread dramatically by high winds that swept through Eastern Oregon on Friday, Aug. 14.
At least 36 homes have burned to the ground in the fire’s path of destruction, and the Oregon Trail Electric Cooperative reports the power is still out for 106 John Day-area customers.
On Monday, the fire continued to move down Little Canyon Mountain to the south and east into the Strawberry Mountain Wilderness in the Malheur National Forest. Charli Bowden, fire information officer, said firefighters are digging line around populated areas to protect what structures they can.
“Our number one concern is structural protection,” Bowden said.
More than 200 residents have been told to evacuate immediately or prepare to evacuate. Those who stay must deal with borderline unhealthy air and have been asked to conserve electricity, where possible.
Air quality in John Day is now at a moderate health risk based on the amount of smoke from the fire. Larry Calkins, air quality specialist with the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, said fine particles from the smoke can get stuck in lungs and trigger asthma or other health problems.
People at highest risk include children, the elderly and anyone with respiratory or heart disease, Calkins said. He advised residents to stay inside and not overexert themselves in smoky conditions.
Meanwhile, 106 customers are without electricity as the Oregon Trail Electric Cooperative has lost miles of power line and poles in the fire. Ned Ratterman, director of engineering and operations for the co-op, said it will take an extended period of time to restore power in the region.
There are four transmission lines that feed into John Day and Canyon City. OTEC crews imported a 2.5-megawatt generator from Seattle as a precaution if all four lines were to go down. So far, the utility’s 138-kilovolt line out of Hines has managed to withstand the heat.
“With the generator on site, we would be able to continue to feed the system enough power for critical emergency services, such as the hospital, gas service station and grocery supply,” Ratterman said. “Hopefully we will not need it now.”
Resources stretched thin
The Canyon Creek Complex is the Northwest’s highest priority wildfire, with more than 649 personnel assigned to the inferno and more on the way.
And, while demand for fire resources has surged across the West, supply is quickly becoming tapped.
The Pacific Northwest is one of three regions nationwide under a wildfire Preparedness Level 5, which means there are more than 14 uncontained large fires exhausting local agencies.
The National Interagency Fire Center in Boise has given the Northwest top priority, though northern California and the northern Rocky Mountains are also at Preparedness Level 5, and the Great Basin region — made up of portions of southern Idaho, Nevada, Utah and northern Arizona — is at Level 4.
All together, there are approximately 95 large wildfires burning 1.1 million acres of land in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, California, Nevada and Colorado. Incident commanders are forced to compete for available firefighters and equipment.
“Most of the teams are not getting the support they want because resources are so thin,” said Kari Boyd-Peck, spokeswoman for the National Interagency Fire Center.
The situation is so dire that, for the first time since 2006, the Department of Defense has agreed to send 200 active duty personnel from John Base Lewis-McChord, Washington, to assist firefighters.
In Oregon alone, there are 12 uncontained large fires burning nearly 300,000 acres, according to the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center in Portland.
Spokeswoman Koshare Eagle said the center prioritizes fires based first on threats to public safety, followed by threats to communities and infrastructure. Numerous fires meet those criteria, Eagle said, but because resources are so thin they have 60 orders for hotshot crews that have gone unfilled.
The majority of acres on fire — more than 225,000 — are also on fires that are less than 30 percent contained, Eagle said, which means they have a long way to go.
“The most challenging thing for the folks working here is knowing the need that’s out there, and not being able to get those resources sent out,” Eagle said. “It’s difficult on everyone.”
An unusual year
Given the amount of strain, Gov. Kate Brown issued an executive order Monday suspending the hours of service rules that usually apply to trucks hauling fuel for firefighting aircraft.
There are 17 air tankers available for Northwest fires, stationed strategically across the region in Moses Lake, Washington, as well as La Grande and Redmond.
U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, also weighed in, saying he will work with the state and Forest Service to make sure all available resources are deployed as quickly as possible.
Jim Whittington, spokesman with the state Bureau of Land Management and regional Forest Service fire staff, said crews prepared well in advance for a difficult fire season based on a third consecutive year of drought and record-low snowpack last winter.
What’s made this year unusual, he said, is the intensity of the season in such a short period of time, with the region hammered by a perfect storm of lightning and wind over the past two weeks.
“There’s an intensity here that probably has not been matched in a number of years, or ever,” Whittington said.
So far, the Northwest has spent more than $167 million fighting fire in 2015. Nationwide, that total is $1.5 billion.
Joani Bosworth, spokeswoman on the Umatilla National Forest, said they are dealing with two fires, including the Grizzly Bear Complex in southeast Washington and a 70-acre Turner Basin Fire south of Ukiah. No structures are threatened, and she said both of those blazes are staffed with local crews.
But, if they pick up any more fires, Bosworth said they, like other agencies, could quickly outstretch their capacity.
“This year ranks at the top of the list for one of the most challenging years of fire suppression and resources,” she said. “And we still have a couple weeks of fire season ahead of us.”
Contact George Plaven at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-966-0825.