Fires burning in Eastern Oregon

July 15, 2002 12:00 am
Smoke clouds the sky over Baker Valley on Saturday, dropping ash and dirt from the sky. (Baker City Herald/Glenda Carter).
Smoke clouds the sky over Baker Valley on Saturday, dropping ash and dirt from the sky. (Baker City Herald/Glenda Carter).

By JAYSON JACOBY

Of the Baker City Herald

The fire was a lot hotter, and the flames advanced a lot faster, than Wayne Wise expected.

"When it came off (the ridge) it was get the hell out of Dodge," said Wise, a Hereford logger who lost a bulldozer, log skidder and fire truck Saturday to the lightning-sparked blaze, which has burned about 17,300 acres of timber and rangeland south of Unity.

"Usually a fire won't go downhill like that," Wise said this morning. "It was hot."

The blaze started about 2:30 p.m. Friday in the Monument Rock Wilderness about nine miles south of Unity, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

Wise was about a mile and a half away, cutting timber on a 640-acre parcel Ellingson Lumber Co. owns.

When he returned Saturday morning, alone, the fire was "still fightable," he said.

He didn't see any firefighters working on it.

Wise said he intended to stay and use his own equipment to try to stop the flames — until he saw how fast the fire was moving.

"On Saturday afternoon it just blew up," Wise said.

The fire scorched almost all of Ellingson Lumber's property, which Wise said contained stands of lodgepole and ponderosa pine, Engelmann spruce, and red and white fir trees.

The blaze also burned south toward Squaw Butte and Lone Rock, and east down both the East Camp Creek and West Camp Creek valleys, Wise said.

Wise said his equipment, with a total value of about $90,000, was insured.

He said he hopes to return to work soon with rental equipment to supplement his log loader, which was damaged by the blaze but not ruined.

Wise said Chuck Phegley, a Baker City logger, also lost a skidder and a fire truck in the fire.

Although scattered showers and higher humidities on Sunday slowed the fire, officials say that if gusty winds and higher temperatures revive the blaze, it has the potential to threaten five homes, the Forest Service's fire lookout on Table Rock, a nearby active mine, and endangered trout.

But with big fires roaring in Oregon and across the West, finding firefighters to battle the blaze has been difficult, officials said.

The problems that have plagued Arizona and Colorado for the past month are spreading.

"It's starting to hit a little closer to home," said Barry Hansen of the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest.

Due to difficult access and the shortage of firefighters, water-dropping helicopters have borne the brunt of the firefighting duties thus far, officials said.

About 60 people were assigned to the Monument fire this morning, and although officials have ordered many more crews, fire engines, bulldozers and aircraft, the large number of big fires across the West has made firefighting resources hard to find.

Fire officials have closed the Monument Rock Wilderness to the public until further notice.

Other areas, including part of the Strawberry Mountain Wilderness and many forest roads, also are closed due to a pair of large fires near Prairie City.

Although weekend thunderstorms spread lightning across Northeastern Oregon Friday, Saturday and Sunday, the largest fires were confined to the area south of Highway 26.

The biggest blaze north of the highway has burned about five acres near Two Color Guard Station, along Eagle Creek about 27 air miles northeast of Baker City, Hansen said.

Crews are mopping up that fire today, a difficult job that probably will continue until Wednesday due to the heavy timber in the area, he said.

Hansen said lightning over the weekend sparked about a dozen other fires, none larger than one acre.

Rain showers, though scattered, helped to quell some of the new blazes, he said.

"Some areas got hit real well," Hansen said. "It just depends on which cloud passed over."

Fire danger is a bit lower on the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest than on the Malheur, Hansen said.

That's typically the case in mid-July, he said. The Malheur forests tends to dry out sooner than those in the Wallowa-Whitman, where the winter snowpack is deeper and the weather usually cooler and wetter.