Fire officials knew trouble was coming when a series of lightning storms rolled over the Malheur National Forest earlier this month.
Yet despite an initial attack that included both air and ground support, crews simply couldn’t corral the two fires that would eventually form the hellish Canyon Creek Complex south of John Day.
Dastardly winds and bone dry fuels quickly overwhelmed resources battling the blaze, to the point where one firefighter succumbed to heat exhaustion. Over the next three days, the complex would swell to tens of thousands of acres and consume 39 homes in its path.
On Monday, the Malheur National Forest released a play-by-play retelling of its response between Wednesday, Aug. 12 and Friday, Aug. 14 in an effort to describe how exactly the fires bucked containment and grew into such a powerful, destructive force.
Forest Supervisor Steve Beverlin said the community had many questions about what happened during those first several days, and the Forest Service wanted to offer a factual sequence of the events leading up to when the fire exploded out of control.
“People just wonder how does it go from here to there,” Beverlin said. “We think it’s important for local folks in the community to understand the initial attack we did.”
The Canyon Creek Complex started as two smaller fires burning in dramatically different terrain: the Mason Springs fire, east of Highway 395, in relatively flat ground and the Berry Creek fire in a steep, rocky portion of the Strawberry Mountain Wilderness.
Both fires started Aug. 12 following a three-day lightning storm that swept over much of Eastern Oregon. A total of 12 new fires were spotted on the Malheur National Forest from south of Seneca to north and east of the Indian Rock area.
The Forest Service deployed one heavy air tanker, three single-engine air tankers, two helicopters, smokejumpers and rappelers, three fire engines, a 20-person hand crew, one bulldozer and two water tenders to fight the Berry Creek and Mason Springs fires. Beverlin signed off on an order granting special permission to use chainsaws for fire suppression in the wilderness area.
By Wednesday afternoon, crews had surrounded the Mason Springs fire with dozer and retardant line and felt confident enough to reassign one of their helicopters to Berry Creek, where fire activity was becoming increasingly aggressive. One firefighter had to be taken to the hospital with heat exhaustion, but has since recovered and rejoined the line, Beverlin said.
The Berry Creek fire grew to 50 acres by Thursday, Aug. 13, and burning actively to the west. Two more structure protection engines, one dozer and a five-person hand crew arrived from the Oregon Department of Forestry to get a better handle on the blaze.
Meanwhile, the 10-acre Mason Springs fire also jumped its containment line Thursday after high winds ignited a spot fire about 400 feet away. It was at that time when a Type 3 management team assumed control of both fires, with the most difficult conditions yet to come.
“I believe we did everything we could with the resources we had available to put those two fires out,” Beverlin said. “Sometimes Mother Nature has other plans, and that’s what happened.”
By Friday, Aug. 14 the Mason Springs had grown dramatically to 500 acres and crossed the highway toward Canyon Creek. Wind gusts picked up to 30 mph, spreading flames as quickly as sheriff’s deputies could scramble to issue evacuation notices.
With both fires burning actively, the main focus became protecting homes. Fire departments from Canyon City, John Day, Dayville, Mount Vernon, Prairie City, Monument and Long Creek all responded, while the incident commander on the Mason Springs fire worked to determine which structures needed immediate protection.
Mount Vernon firefighters were assigned to guard homes up Corral Gulch and the J-Bar-L Ranch. Another spot fire erupted at Eagle Peak, further adding to the juggling act of assigning resources.
Between noon and 6 p.m., the fires had become too much and 39 homes burned to the ground.
“It’s difficult,” Beverlin said. “We live here, too. When things like that happen to our neighbors and our community, it’s a loss that everybody feels.”
Later that evening, local resources were sent home and a Type 1 management team — the most trained and highest staffed team available — was assigned to Canyon Creek. Firefighting resources remain stretched thin across the Northwest as a number of large blazes continue to burn in Oregon and Washington.
Dave Hannibal, John Day base manager for Grayback Forestry, a wildfire and emergency services contractor, said it wouldn’t have mattered how many firefighters they had available given the extremely difficult conditions.
“If we’d had 1,000 extra firefighters, we’d have only been more likely to have some serious injuries, or worse,” Hannibal said. “The fire still would have claimed what it did. Our hearts go out to all who lost their homes in this fire.”
Beverlin said the Forest Service will work on a plan to rehabilitate the landscape burned by the Canyon Creek Complex, and he is thankful for all the support from volunteers and the Red Cross.