Kitzhaber declares a state of emergency

By Dylan J. Darling The Bulletin

As wildfires burned around Central and Eastern Oregon, Gov. John Kitzhaber on Wednesday declared a state of emergency, which allows the Oregon National Guard to join firefighting if necessary.

“Oregon is facing a severe fire season,” he said in a news release. “This declaration gives the resources and tools we need to respond and protect people, property and Oregon’s natural areas. This crisis is a reminder that each of us has a responsibility to our state to prevent new wildfires.”

Most of the wildfires burning Wednesday were still not contained and caused highway closures, evacuation warnings and thick smoke that reached Bend. The fires were ignited by lightning earlier this week.

Smoke from the fires put a haze around Bend on Wednesday, and more smoke could be in store the rest of the week. While obscuring the city’s signature mountain views, the smoke didn’t cause the air quality to reach unhealthy levels, according to data from the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality.

Looking at a satellite image of Central Oregon, Dennis Hull, meteorologist with National Weather Service in Pendleton said Wednesday night that fires were putting off smoke in almost every direction from Bend.

“Pretty much whichever wind blows, you are going to get smoke coming at you until they get those fires put out,” he said.

A fire northeast of Madras prompted the Oregon Department of Transportation to close Highway 97 late Wednesday afternoon as the fire burned near the highway’s junction with U.S. Highway 197. Around 7 p.m. ODOT started piloting traffic through the smoke pouring over the highway, which remained closed.

The fire, called No. 347 by dispatchers, was burning about a mile from the Cow Canyon grade rest stop on Highway 97.

Kassidy Kern, spokeswoman for the Central Oregon Interagency Dispatch Center in Prineville, said the fire, which is on a mix of public and private land, had burned at least 1,500 acres. Local firefighters had been trying to corral it since Sunday and were joined Wednesday by five federal fire engines and two air tankers.

Another fire, the Waterman Complex Fire, continues to keep U.S. Highway 26 closed northeast of Prineville.

ODOT closed the highway, which connects Central Oregon and John Day, Monday night. It was still closed Wednesday with no estimate as to when it would reopen, said Emily Veale, a spokeswoman for the interagency team managing the fire.

“It is going to be closed for a bit,” she said. Highway 26 is closed near Ochoco Pass, between mileposts 50 and 56.

The fire also prompted the Crook County Sheriff’s Office on Wednesday night to warn people living in the Mark Creeks area along Highway 26 to be ready to evacuate at a moment’s notice. The level 2 advisory covered about 27 homes along the highway between the old home of the Mount Bachelor Academy and Forest Road 2630, said Deputy Michael Ryan, Crook County emergency manager. The homes are about three miles from the Waterman Complex Fire.

“… The fire is moving that direction,” Ryan said.

Earlier in the week the fire also caused the evacuation and closure of Ochoco Divide and Wildwood campgrounds, as well as Crystal Springs organization camp.

The fire had burned 4,319 acres and was not contained Wednesday.

Updates Wednesday on other fires include:

• Bridge 99 Complex Fire, 9 miles north of Camp Sherman, 1,500 acres and not contained. Allen Springs, Lower Bridge and Pioneer Ford campgrounds still closed.

• Jack Knife Fire, 8 miles southeast of Grass Valley, 6,130 acres and 20 percent contained.

• Shaniko Butte Fire, 12 miles north of Warm Springs, 12,198 acres and not contained.

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

Peter Murphy, Oregon Department of Transportation / Courtesy photo The Waterman Complex Fire burns Wednesday near the Ochoco Summit on U.S. Highway 26 northeast of Prineville. The fire has kept the highway closed since Monday night. Officials gave no estimate as to when it will reopen.