SISTERS — A routine run for a pair of ultrarunners from Bend turned into a race for survival Sunday morning as they fled from the flames of the Pole Creek Fire.
First spotted around 10:30 a.m. Sunday, the fire had burned at least 1,500 acres by nightfall, said Katie Lighthall, spokeswoman for the team managing the fire. During the day, the fire cast a massive smoke column that was visible from Bend and dominated the skyline in Sisters. The blaze was the first major wildfire to burn close to Bend this summer.
Burning completely uncontained, the fire prompted warnings of possible evacuations for homes near Sisters, and Deschutes County Search and Rescue headed into the backcountry to usher people out of the fire’s way. The teams cleared people from about a 100-square-mile section of woods around the fire, between Sisters and North Sister.
“There (were) people up there hiking and camping,” Lighthall said.
Atop Middle Sister, Rod Bien and his running partner Ian Sharman didn’t get a warning, although they did see a wisp of smoke rising from the woods below. As they ran back to the Pole Creek Trailhead, where Bien had parked his van, the smoke became increasingly thick.
“It just exploded,” said Bien, 40, of Bend.
At the trailhead, they found the forest in flames and saw a car on fire. Bien said he tried to drive his 2003 Volkswagen Eurovan out using the 10-mile gravel Forest Service road they’d come in on, but was turned back.
“You couldn’t see a foot in front of you — it was just a wall of smoke,” he said.
Bien said they used a map to navigate their way through a maze of rarely traveled roads, overgrown with manzanita.
“It trashed my car ... but we did get out,” he said.
The rugged roads eventually led Bien and Sharman, 33, also of Bend, to the main road leading to the Pole Creek Trailhead about five miles from the fire.
The fire destroyed four unoccupied cars at the trailhead, said Deschutes County Sheriff’s Capt. Shane Nelson.
The trailhead is one of the entrances and exits to the Three Sisters Wilderness. Deschutes County Search and Rescue worked with the U.S. Forest Service on Sunday to find people in the woods near the fire and move them south. There were no injuries reported.
“We don’t have any information that any(one) is in immediate danger,” Nelson said.
While the backcountry near the fire and Three Creeks Campground were evacuated, the Pole Creek Fire caused warnings of possible evacuation for the Crossroads subdivision as well as homes on Edgington and Remuda roads. As of Sunday night, no evacuations in those areas had been ordered.
It also led to the closure of state Highway 242, the McKenzie Highway, between the Trout Creek intersection and White Ranch. Three Creeks Road and Forest Road 15, which leads to the Pole Creek Trailhead, were also closed.
Drawing three air tankers and a swarm of firefighters, the Pole Creek Fire comes during what had been a relatively quiet Central Oregon fire season.
Over the past 10 years, Central Oregon has averaged 450 fires each year, with about 50,000 acres burned, said Valerie Reed, assistant manager at the Central Oregon Interagency Dispatch Center in Prineville. Before the Pole Creek Fire on Sunday, there had been 228 fires this year that burned about 18,500 acres.
As of 8:30 p.m. Sunday, there was no estimate on how large the Pole Creek Fire may grow and when it might be contained.
“It’s too early to tell,” Lighthall said Sunday night.
She said squirrelly winds were pushing the fire through dry timber and brush.
A cold front is moving into Central Oregon, and firefighters are waiting to see what weather it brings and how the blaze responds.
“(Today) will be a really telling day,” Lighthall said.
Late last week Lighthall said a dry September had left vegetation in Central Oregon 30 to 50 percent drier than normal this time of year — ready to burn.
Before the Pole Creek Fire, the larger fires in Central Oregon this year came on land outside the 9 million acres covered by the Central Oregon Interagency Dispatch Center. The largest were the Waterfalls 2 Fire on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation and the Lava Fire on land overseen by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management southeast of Bend.
More than a month after lightning started the Waterfalls 2 Fire on the northeast flank of Mount Jefferson, the blaze is still smoldering but unlikely to spread farther.
The fire had burned 12,265 acres and was 90 percent contained as of Friday, according to InciWeb, the federal online fire information website.
Lightning started a pair of fires near waterfalls in the Shitike Creek drainage on Aug. 4, Penhollow said. They eventually grew together and became the Waterfalls 2 Fire, erupting into a large fire Aug. 14.
Firefighters hope they’ll have the fire, which burned through timber on rugged terrain, fully contained this week.
Still, weather will probably finally put out the Waterfalls 2 Fire, Clay Penhollow, spokesman for the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, said Friday.
“It could be October, November when it is really out,” he said. “... It will take those rains or snow to finish it off.”
The Lava Fire, which was started by lightning July 23, also continues to burn. Weather will also likely be what puts out the 21,546-acre fire, said Suzi Suba, assistant manager at the Lakeview Interagency Dispatch Center.
As of Friday, firefighters had the fire 95 percent contained, and Suba said full containment was expected Oct. 15.
Although the cold front is expected to drop temperatures tonight to near freezing in Bend, summer will make a return later this week, said Douglas Weber, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service office in Pendleton. Highs later in the week should be around 80 degrees.
“I wouldn’t rule summer completely out yet,” he said.
A public meeting about the Pole Creek Fire is set for 6 p.m. today at Sisters Elementary School. For updates about the fire, including evacuation information, call 541-550-4886.