Rare wind storm threatens to push fire out of wilderness

The Canyon Creek Complex fire was about seven miles from Prairie City on Thursday. Fire crews worry that a rare August wind storm will push the fire even more into the Strawberry Wilderness.

By Tim Trainor

Blue Mountain Eagle

Fire officials are being forced to make another stand against the destructive and unpredictable Canyon Creek Complex fire as a rare August wind storm is set to arrive Saturday.

Weather forecasters are calling for wind gusts of 35 mph through the valleys and 45 mph over fiery ridgetops as a low pressure system pushes from the west, over the Cascades. The wind is expected to impact the 86,889-acre fire around 11 a.m. Saturday.

The weather team at fire headquarters at the Grant County Fairgrounds called the forecast a “very atypical event” that hasn’t been seen in the area in decades.

That has fire officials on the defensive and attempting to push the blaze into safer terrain that has already been burned by large fires in previous years, thus reducing the amount of fuel there now.

Great Basin incident management team operations Chief Jeff Surber said his crews are looking to create a pinch point near Road’s End, where they are attempting to turn the fire and stop its advance out of the wilderness area and into more populated country.

Crews backburned the forest there earlier in the week to try to remove fuels and stop the fire’s progress. But unfavorable conditions forced them to halt that work over the past two days.

“The Catch-22 is that we have green vegetation between us and the fire,” said Surber. “But, because of weather, we’re concerned about lighting it now and having the wind catch it. We’re also concerned the wind will catch the main fire and do it anyway.”

Oregon Fire Marshal engines are working to protect structures in the upper areas of Dog, Indian and Pine creeks west of Prairie City and on the edge of the fire complex. About 60 residents have been evacuated from the their homes in the area since Wednesday, said Grant County Sheriff Glenn Palmer. Palmer also said 11 structures were burned and destroyed there, mostly hunting cabins and outbuildings. None were permanent residences.

The fire marshal crews had left the area Wednesday morning, thinking the Canyon Creek Complex would stay confined to the wilderness and continue to smolder but not grow. However, high winds arrived Wednesday afternoon, and the fire erupted, growing by 15 percent in just a few hours.

The fire is now about seven miles from downtown Prairie City. Citizens at a public meeting Friday night at the Prairie City Grange worried about the projected winds pushing flames over bulldozer lines and onto the prairie and grazing land that sits between their city and the fire currently blazing through the forest.

“I just don’t know how you are going to stay in front of it (if that happens),” one woman asked at the packed house meeting, with more than 100 people in attendance.

Fire crews made no promises, but emphasized that they are doing everything they can. Firefighters are working 16-hour shifts, said Surber, and some are working more than that.

It’s not just the cities that are in danger. The outdoor mecca that is the Strawberry Mountains are being ravaged. The area is a favorite recreation place for hunters, anglers and backpackers.

Spot fires are being fought in the Strawberry basin, including the well-traveled wilderness lakes of Strawberry, High and Slide. The fire has breeched the ridgeline directly above High Lake, but crews have continued to attack it.

“We’re hopeful, but it’s got a lot of fire in it,” said Surber of protecting the Strawberry basin.

Level 2 evacuation orders were given for the first time Friday to residents of Strawberry Road from the forest boundary to Oxbow Ranch Headquarters.

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