By Dylan J. Darling
Wildfires burning Tuesday east of the Cascades kept a highway closed, shut down campgrounds and created a haze.
Now firefighters are bracing for a shift in weather that could bring winds to fan the flames. The National Weather Service issued a red-flag warning for 2 to 11 p.m. today, saying gusty winds could cause rapid fire growth.
Sustained winds should be around 15 mph, and gusts may hit 30 mph, said Douglas Weber, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Pendleton.
“It’s enough to create a problem,” Weber said.
Thousands of lightning strikes Sunday and early Monday probably started most of the wildfires, which are burning on private, public and reservation land.
The Waterman Complex Fire, a collection of fires burning within 20 miles of Mitchell, kept U.S. Highway 26 closed just west of Mitchell . State highway officials first shut down the highway, which connects Central Oregon to John Day and beyond, Monday night. On Tuesday afternoon, fires continued to burn along both sides of the highway , said Peter Murphy, spokesman for the Oregon Department of Transportation.
“Right now there is no word on when it might reopen,” he said Tuesday afternoon.
A 6-mile stretch of the highway, between mileposts 50 and 56, is closed, and it will probably stay closed today so firefighters can clear burned trees that could fall onto the road, according to the Central Oregon Interagency Dispatch Center in Prineville. The fires prompted the evacuation of some ranches Tuesday and the closure of Ochoco Divide Campground.
The highway closure is blocking access from Central Oregon via U.S. Highway 26 to the Painted Hills and Sheep Rock units of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, said Shelley Hall, superintendent at the monument.
“Obviously, visitors are not going to make it to the park from Bend without going a long way out of their way,” she said Tuesday. The Clarno unit is accessible from Bend by going through Madras and Antelope.
The Waterman Complex Fire had burned 3,000 acres. No estimate of containment was available Tuesday night as the management of the fire was in transition.
The Bridge 99 Fire, burning 9 miles north of Camp Sherman, prompted the Tuesday morning closure of Allen Springs, Lower Bridge and Pioneer Ford campgrounds along the Metolius River. Started by lightning and first spotted around 6:20 p.m. Sunday, the fire is burning through woods on Green Ridge above Lower Bridge Campground and Bridge 99, said Robin Vora, a spokesman with the Deschutes National Forest.
Although the fire isn’t threatening the campgrounds, they are nearby, he said.
“We just don’t want people in there,” Vora said.
The fire had burned 400 acres as of Tuesday night, and there was no containment, according to the dispatch center. A nearby fire, burning mainly in the Mount Jefferson Wilderness and partly on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation, had burned 150 acres as of Tuesday night. This morning, firefighters plan to consolidate management of the fires and call them the Bridge 99 Complex Fire.
The Shaniko Butte Fire, burning about 12 miles north of Warm Springs, was moving fast through grass, bitter brush and juniper, said Rawlin Richardson, a spokesman with the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs. The fire, which burned one home Monday, started Sunday as four separate lighting-sparked blazes and has burned into one.
The fire had burned about 10,000 acres, and Richardson said there was no estimate for containment. Nearly 300 lightning strikes on the reservation started 14 fires there, most of which firefighters have put out.
Elsewhere around Oregon, wildfires continued to burn, including the White River Fire near Maupin, the Bingham Complex Fire near Marion Forks and the Buzzard and Saddle Draw fires near Burns.
Near Sprague River, northeast of Klamath Falls, firefighters Tuesday were close to surrounding the Moccasin Hill Fire with fire line, although the 2,500-acre blaze was only 15 percent contained, according to the Oregon Department of Forestry. Since Sunday, the fire has destroyed six homes and 14 other buildings. Evacuation orders were still up Tuesday night for subdivisions near the fire.
While not threatening homes, the 6,130-acre Jack Knife Fire southeast of Grass Valley is burning close to the lower stretch of the John Day River. The portion of the river is popular for rafting. Firefighters warned rafters that helicopters may be dipping water from the river to drop on the fire.
Although the fires aren’t close to Bend, Redmond or Prineville, their smoke could affect those and other Central Oregon towns, depending which way the wind blows. Tuesday there was a haze in Bend, although air quality conditions stayed fair, said Greg Svelund, spokesman for the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality in Bend.
“The air around here and within 50 miles of Bend is decent,” he said Tuesday afternoon.
Smoke probably will be a regular sight this week, and Svelund said people can do a quick visibility check to see whether air quality is worsening.
Simply put, the farther someone can see, the clearer the air is, with visibility of 5 to 15 miles a sign of clear air. Visibility of 3 to 5 miles indicates the air could be unhealthy for people with breathing issues. Visibility of 1 to 3 miles means the air is unhealthy for all.
“Anything under 3 miles you want to start paying attention to and start avoiding exercise outdoors,” he said.
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