Hot temperatures jack up fire threat

Sean C. Morgan

In response to the arrival of hot, dry weather, fire danger spiked to extreme last week in the Sweet Home area for the first time in a couple of years, while smoke from the Shadow Lake fire near Sisters settled over Sweet Home.

A string of thunderstorms starting Aug. 28 ignited numerous fires across the Willamette and Deschutes national forests, including the Shadow Lake fire, which grew to more than 10,000 acres in the Mt. Washington Wilderness on both forests over the weekend.

Some 480 personnel were on the fire. Resources last week included 12 crews, 18 engines, 12 bulldozers and five helicopters.

The fire was 25 percent contained as of Monday, Oregon Department of Forestry officials reported.

Forest Service spokeswoman Jennifer O’Leary said the strategy is to confine the fire to the wilderness because the area has poor access and is filled with safety hazards, including steep terrain and snags with heavy fuel loads.

“Even if we did go in there and do full suppression, we’d have a very low chance of suppressing it,” O’Leary said.

The Shadow Lake fire has been active with the warm temperatures, low humidity and an easterly wind, she said. “We expect to see a lot of the smoke produced in this fire to be pushed to the west.”

She anticipated light to moderate amounts of smoke reaching Sweet Home, she said.

The good news Monday was that west winds are expected for the early part of the week, which would decrease temperatures and increase the recent low relative humidity. Night time humidity was expected to increase over the early part of the week allowing the fire to “take a nap for the first time” according to Fire Behavior Specialist Todd Rankin.

Winds out of the west/southwest for the next few days were expected to push the fire back on itself, and smoke towards the Suttle Lake, Black Butte Ranch and Sisters area. Due to terrain features, these will likely push the northern fireline. Firefighters were working to hold these lines and watching for spot fires across the dozer line or Santiam Wagon Road.

The fire has forced the closure of some areas in the forest, including Big Lake and part of the Pacific Crest Trail.

The Shadow Lake fire is within about three miles of private lands protected by the Oregon Department of Forestry Sweet Home Unit.

Contingency lines were completed over the weekend and equipment has been staged on Highway 126 at Clear Lake as firefighters put in hose lays as a precaution.

Officials are urging drivers to be cautious on Highways 126 and 20 as visibility can potentially be low due to smoke and traffic has increased. The fire is anticipated to burn until a significant rain or snowfall. Until then, smoke will be visible as it drifts across roads and into low lying areas. Outside the closure area immediately surrounding the fire, popular tourist and recreation opportunities remain open in the McKenzie River Corridor and Sisters area.

The Substitute fire is burning on the McKenzie River Ranger District in the Willamette National Forest. The fire reached more than 110 acres by the end of the week.

The 1,670-acre Mother Lode fire is burning 10 miles northwest of Detroit. A full perimeter had been established around the fire, reported on Aug. 26, by Monday, according to ODF officials. The fire is 5 percent contained. An interagency incident management team assumed command of the fire at noon Friday. Trail and area closures are in effect; also Bull of the Woods historic lookout is at risk.

Locally, the lightning caused a one-quarter acre fire in the Snow Peak area on lands protected by the Sweet Home Unit.

Firefighters handled it easily, said Unit Forester Ed Keith. “It was very convenient – on the side of the road. That was the most significant thing.”

Fire has been relatively rare so far this summer. The Sweet Home Unit responded to a farm implement fire that burned about one-tenth of an acre a week and a half ago and another quarter-acre fire three weeks ago near Weatherly Lane when a debris pile got away from a resident, said Forest Protection Supervisor Jim Basting.

So far this year, the Sweet Home Unit has issued two citations for violations of regulated use and 10 warnings. Usually, the unit issues a couple of citations and about 35 warnings per season.

The Sweet Home Unit increased its fire danger level to extreme on Sept. 6 due to the hot, dry weather and easterly winds. The industrial precaution level increased to level III, which prohibits all chainsaw use for homeowners and most cable logging operations.

During the month of August, the Sweet Home Unit measured .12 inches of precipitation for the month, down from .91 inches last year, Keith said.

Sweet Home Unit has received requests for firefighters for fires around the state, Keith said, but it has kept most of them home due to the extreme fire danger in the area right now.

Forest Protection Supervisor Chad Calderwood went out to the Substitute fire last week.

Other major fires around the state include the Dollar fire on Mount Hood, which had burned 4,378 acres as of Sept. 8, the Cactus Mountain fire near Imnaha at 1,200 acres and the High Cascades Complex near Warm Springs at nearly 2,000 acres.

The current outlook is for the fire danger to remain high.

“I always take these things with a grain of salt,” Keith said. “The reports I’ve seen is no relief through the rest of September at least, possibly into October.”

For information about fire season and fire restrictions, contact the Sweet Home Unit at (541) 367-6108.