PORTLAND — A fast-moving fire fueled by gusting winds in the Pacific Northwest killed one person, forced dozens of households to evacuate and prompted Oregon Gov. Kate Brown to declare a state of emergency Wednesday.
The flames near the The Dalles started Tuesday and expanded Wednesday to more than 56 square miles as the fire spread into vast fields of wheat while desperate farmers tried to salvage their crops in the midst of the harvest season.
One person was found dead Wednesday a short distance from a burned-out tractor. The person was likely trying to use the heavy farm machinery to create a fire break to hold back flames, the Wasco County Sheriff’s Office said in a statement.
Firefighters crept into the fields in water trucks and attempted to douse the leading edges of the fire from behind as it burned through acres of wheat, with everything behind the flames charred black.
The news of the fatality came as authorities on Wednesday ordered additional mandatory evacuations in the small communities of Moro and Grass Valley.
The conflagration about 80 miles east of Portland doesn’t bode well for a Pacific Northwest fire season that’s expected to be worse than normal, with drought conditions in many areas and above-average temperatures forecast through September, the center said.
It comes as other states across the American West, including California and Colorado, have struggled with massive blazes that have torn through land gripped by drought.
In Oregon, very low humidity, high temperatures and winds gusting up to 30 mph made the flames explosive in thin grasses and wheat fields, said Robin DeMario, a spokeswoman for the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center.
“These light fuels go up very quickly,” DeMario said. “The grassy stalks are very dry, they have lost the moisture in those stalks, and so if a fire start begins, we call it ‘flashy fuels’ because it burns very fast and very hot.”