Fire crews have taken advantage of a favorable wind direction to begin corralling a blaze that spread rapidly Friday afternoon and forced the evacuation of Anthony Lakes Mountain Resort and several campgrounds in the area and closed the Elkhorn Drive Scenic Byway.
The Bear Butte fire, reported about 2 p.m. Friday, has burned about 383 acres, said Robin Vora, a spokesman at the fire camp set up Sunday at the Elkhorn Wildlife area near where the Elkhorn Drive Scenic Byway leaves Baker Valley and begins climbing the east slopes of the Elkhorn Mountains.
Fire officials initially estimated the size at 1,000 acres on Friday, but dense smoke made it difficult to gauge the size of the blaze.
The fire started near Bear Butte, about a mile and a half northeast of Anthony Lakes, and gusty northwest winds pushed the flames to the south and east along a ridge between the Byway to the south and Indian Creek to the north.
Investigators have not determined what caused the fire, although there had not been lightning in the area for several days before Friday.
A Forest Service report Friday night that said the fire was human-caused was in premature, although people might have been responsible for the fire, said Willie Crippen, a fire management officer for the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest.
A shift in the wind direction on Sunday aided firefighters by pushing the fire into areas already burned, Vora said.
“We’ve been really helped by Mother Nature with the wind direction,” he said.
The fire’s growth Friday was generally away from Anthony Lakes, and crews are working today to finish a control line on the west side of the blaze to further protect the resort and campgrounds at Anthony, Mud and Grande Ronde lakes, Vora said.
“There are very valuable resources at Anthony Lakes that we want to protect,” he said.
The goal is to link hand-dug fire lines with a wider line on the ridge north of the Elkhorn Byway, Vora said. An old road runs along that ridge, and bulldozers widened that road to create a firebreak.
The fire, which is relatively long and narrow, is north of the Elkhorn Byway, roughly between the Baker Valley Overlook and the Van Patten Lake trailhead road.
Embers from the main fire ignited a few small spot fires south of the Byway, but crews quickly doused those spots over the weekend, Vora said.
About 330 people are assigned to the fire today, with more on the way, Vora said.
There are also four helicopters dumping water on hot spots, and on Sunday air tankers from Redmond dropped retardant around the blaze, he said.
“Fortunately there are not a lot of competing large fires in the region, so we’ve had good air support,” he said.
Peter Johnson, manager of Anthony Lakes Mountain Resort, said an employee who was working on a mountain bike trail Friday afternoon saw smoke from the fire, and Johnson reported it to the Forest Service.
Later Friday Baker County issued an evacuation notice that included the resort, campgrounds and the 20 or so summer cabins at Floodwater Flats, just northeast of Anthony Lakes.
Officials also closed the Elkhorn Byway between the Wallowa-Whitman boundary on the east side of the Elkhorns, to the North Fork John Day campground to the west.
See more in the Aug. 7, 2017, issue of the Baker City Herald.