Fire officials are upbeat about their progress in fighting a wildfire in Oregon’s wind-swept Columbia River Gorge that destroyed one home, damaged two others and threatened more than 700 others, reports The Associated Press.
Crews focused Friday on burnout operations to deprive the fire of fuel and improve containment lines. Firefighters also worked to create more defensible space around homes in the small town of Rowena.
Incident Commander John Buckman says firefighters “turned the corner today and things are looking much better.”
Even the winds, which have gusted to 30 mph, were expected to die down.
The fire has burned across about 5 square miles since it started Tuesday. It’s about 35 percent contained. The cause is still under investigation.
The basalt walls of the gorge east of Portland funnel winds that draw wind surfers from afar, but what’s good for recreation gives firefighters fits.
“You look in one direction, and there’s a fire,” said fire spokesman Mike Waite. “You look the other way and there are people out there wind surfing.”
Ken Wright, who helped his daughter, son-in-law and their baby and pets evacuate Wednesday, said the fire surrounded his daughter’s house and four other homes. The family lives about half a mile from where the fire started and was one of the first seven homes evacuated.
“It was scary to watch your house almost burn up, it was pretty crazy,” said Wright, who watched — from a safe distance — fire engines battling the fire around his daughter’s house. “It’s amazing how those firefighters kept the houses from burning, with the fire going around them.”
The family has been told not to return yet, because the fire may go back through the area, Wright said.
Thursday afternoon, gusts pushed the flames back into areas where residents had only hours before been given the OK to return home. A few residents were again evacuated while crews put out fires that had run across containment lines.
Fire crews were digging protective ditches around individual houses.
At a briefing in The Dalles on Friday, governor John Kitzhaber issued a warning to Oregon residents.
“This is a very explosive fire season,” he said. “We’re having enough trouble with lightening caused fires, so people should really be very intentional about using good fire safety practices when they’re in the woods recreating or using power tools.”
The cause of the fire is listed as under investigation, meaning lightning has been ruled out and investigators are looking at human causes. Waite says the fire teams have pinpointed the fire’s start.
Elsewhere in the West, three firefighters have been injured battling a wildfire burning on the Idaho side of the Snake River across from Oregon and Washington.
Fire spokeswoman Jill Cobb says one firefighter received a gash on his leg from a chain saw and required stiches. Another firefighter suffered heat related problems and a third sustained a scratched cornea.
The fire on Friday grew to 76 square miles and destroyed a sixth structure.
In Washington state, fire officials are considering the use of explosives to build a fire break on an inaccessible section of a fast-growing wildfire near Ellensburg that’s grown to nearly 14 square miles. The lightning-caused fire is being fought by more than 700 people.
And a wildfire burning 10 miles north of Keller, Wash., is threatening nearly 150 homes and other structures. Thirty-two residents living nearest to the fire have been evacuated and others have been told to be ready to leave at a moment’s notice.