Fire crews welcomed rain but remained on alert for new lightning fires after a new wave of thunderstorms swept into the region early this week.
Local, state and federal fire agencies spent the past week battling some two dozen blazes that have burned nearly a million acres in Oregon and Washington state.
Over the weekend, at least 14 large fires tapped firefighting resources to the max, drawing incident management teams from across the West. By Monday, more than 6,000 firefighters were working the fires in Oregon, and nearly 2,800 in Washington state.
Closer to home, lightning Monday night has resulted in some smoke column sightings on the Malheur National Forest, and crews were responding. More lightning starts are expected, officials said, despite the beneficial effects of rain and higher humidity that came with the storm.
The Malheur Forest raised fire restrictions on the Emigrant Creek Ranger District to Industrial Fire Precaution Level III; no personal chainsaw use is allowed on that district. The other districts of the forest remain at IFPL II.
Meanwhile, Grant County remains ringed by wildfires in neighboring counties on private and public land.
Here’s an update on the largest fires in the area:
The four fires comprising the Waterman Complex near Mitchell have spread to 12,520 acres and crews estimate containment at 75 percent.
Crews managed to fully contain the Toney Butte Fire, at 2,229 acres, and the smaller Junction Springs and Incident 376 fires. The Bailey Butte Fire is 70 percent contained at 10,276 acres.
In all, 24 crews, 39 engines, 28 water tenders, seven helicopters, nine bulldozers and 901 people are working the fire.
The Oregon Department of Transportation on Tuesday reopened Highway 26 to one lane of traffic, with pilot cars, although another closure is possible if safety concerns recur. Motorists are told to expect 45-minute delays.
The Oregon Department of Forestry said Tuesday the Sunflower Fire has grown to 7,146 acres, and is 50 percent contained. Cooler temperatures aided firefighters conducting burnout operations along Forest Road 24, the Indian Creek Road.
Crews expected to see some trees torch in the Little Wilson Creek and Big Willow Creek drainages.
The fire has been burning in steep, rocky terrain marked by timber strings and open grasslands since it was sparked by lightning on July 14.
Resources assigned to the fire included 30 engines, two helicopters, six water tenders, nine bulldozers and 662 people.
A multiagency coordination center was set up to work on logistics for a half-dozen fires in the region, including the Sunflower and the Waterman Complex. Based in Prineville, it draws together managers from the Oregon Department of Forestry Central Oregon District, the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs and the Central Oregon Fire Management Service.
In addition to the Sunflower Fire and Waterman Complex, it was focusing on :
• The Bridge 99 Complex (Bridge 99 and Bear Butte 2 Fires) on the Deschutes National Forest, north of Sisters.
• The Shaniko Fire, Logging Unit Fire, and the portion of the Bear Butte 2 Fire on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation.
• The Pine Creek Complex – Pine Creek, Jack Knife, Black Rock Fires and Donnybrook Fires – on the Prineville District of the Bureau of Land Management and private land south of Fossil and southeast of Grass Valley.
• The Ochoco Complex – Oscar, Lava, Antelope, Broadway, and Fox Fires– on the Ochoco National Forest and the Prineville District of the Bureau of Land Management, near Big Summit Prairie southeast of Prineville.
Burning across rangeland in Harney and Malheur counties, the Buzzard Complex is 85 percent contained at 395,747 acres.
The area is prime grazing land, and some ranchers have reported losses of cows and calves to the fire.
The sheer size of the fire prompted fire agencies to split the complex into two zones for firefighting operations early this week. On Wednesday morning, however, the entire area is being turned over to the Oregon Interagency Incident Management Team, led by Incident Commander Brian Watts.
Officials said a majority of the lands in the complex had rain Monday night, with more expected in the coming storms.
However, the National Weather Service has issued a red flag warning for all of Eastern Oregon, warning of abundant lightning, a mix of wet and dry storms and strong winds in some areas.