Fire close to Cultus Lake prompts evacuation

Sheriff orders hikers, campers out of West Cultus Lake Campground and nearby small lakes

By Dylan J. Darling / The Bulletin / @DylanJDarling

A wildfire west of Bend Thursday triggered evacuation orders and warnings at Cultus Lake.

The Muskrat Fire started sending up smoke around 12:45 p.m., said Jennee Elliff, one of the four owners of Cultus Lake Resort. It started as a little plume of black smoke.

“Within 20 minutes it was turning white, and you could see the red from the flames,” she said.

As the fire grew, it prompted the Deschutes County Sheriff’s Office to issue a Level III evacuation order for West Cultus Lake Campground, a boat-in campground, on the west side of Cultus Lake, and Level II evacuation warnings for the resort and Cultus Lake Campground on the east side of the lake. As of Thursday night, the Muskrat Fire had burned 30 acres of heavy timber northwest of Cultus Lake in the Three Sisters Wilderness Area, said Kassidy Kern, spokeswoman at the Central Oregon Interagency Dispatch Center. Although a containment estimate was not available Thursday night, she said smokejumpers, helicopters and air tankers helped firefighters slow the spread of the fire earlier in the day.

“We were really able to rein it in and keep it inside a box,” she said. The cause of the fire is under investigation.

Firefighters estimated the fire at 200 acres Thursday afternoon but lowered the size Thursday evening to 30 acres after observers from the air got a better view of the fire.

Earlier in the day, smoke made the blaze difficult to size, Kern said.

“The fire area was pretty obstructed,” she said.

The Deschutes County Sheriff’s Office is in charge of issuing evacuation warnings and orders. A Level I warning means be ready to evacuate; a Level II warning means prepare to evacuate at a moment’s notice; a Level III order means evacuate now.

The Level III evacuation order issued Thursday afternoon for the Muskrat Fire covers the west and north shores of Cultus Lake, as well as the backcountry north of the lake, according to the Sheriff’s Office. The backcountry Level III evacuation order is for Corral Swamp and Winopee, Muskrat and Teddy lakes.

The evacuation warnings and orders were still in effect Thursday night, said Sheriff’s Capt. Shane Nelson. In determining where to issue evacuation warnings and at what level, he said Sheriff’s deputies confer with firefighters to learn where a fire may spread. The deputies also factor in how long it may take people to evacuate.

“We want to give people enough information ahead of time so they can leave an area in a safe and smooth manner,” he said.

Elliff said she’s been an owner at Cultus Lake Resort for 17 years and this is the first time there’s been any level of evacuation warning or order due to wildfire. The resort — which opened in 1954 and can house up to 135 guests in 23 cabins — was full Thursday. Despite the evacuation warning, she said no guests had decided to leave.

“It’s all good,” she said. “You just can’t get to the other side of the lake.”

For campers in and near West Cultus Lake Campground, the Muskrat Fire brought an early end to a midsummer vacation, including a large group of family and friends. For 40-plus years, members and friends of the Snodgrass family of Portland have gathered at Cultus Lake for a week of camping at the beginning of August.

A friend of the family, Piper Stewart, 25, of Oregon City, said she was water-skiing when she saw the plume of smoke.

“It just kept getting bigger and bigger,” she said.

A Sheriff’s boat came around, and deputies warned them they may need to evacuate. They returned later to order the evacuation.

About 50 people were at the campout, and Stewart said boats were carrying the last loads of people and gear across the lake around 7:30 p.m.

She and Eric Wood, 34, of Gresham, whose wife is in the family, said it was the first time a wildfire has caused an evacuation at the annual campout. Both were headed home Thursday night.

The fire, about 11/2 miles from the campground, was the closest Wood said he’s been to a wildfire.

“It seemed really close,” he said. “The smoke was all over.”

— Reporter: 541-617-7812, ddarling@bendbulletin.com

Editor’s note: This article has been corrected. A previous version misidentified Capt. Shane Nelson’s rank. The Bulletin regrets the error.