Fire officials believe arson is the cause of three wildfires east of La Pine, including the largest fire to burn in Central Oregon so far this year.
U.S. Forest Service law enforcement officers continue to investigate the string of suspicious fires that started earlier this month.
The first was the Paulina Lake Fire, which started at 1 p.m. July 5 near U.S. Highway 97 and Forest Road 21, about 6 miles northeast of La Pine. It was contained to 48 acres.
On July 8, the Finely Fire started at 2:30 p.m. near Darlene Way and Finley Butte Road, about 2 miles east of La Pine. It was contained at 45 acres.
Then on July 18, the Rosland Road Fire started at about 2 p.m. near the Newberry Estates subdivision, 4 miles northeast of La Pine. It was contained at 393 acres, the most acres burned in a fire this year.
Officials are asking the public for any information or tips that could help in the investigations.
“It’s very disturbing that someone would choose to do this, and that is why we are definitely seeking the public’s help so we can catch and prosecute this person,” said Jean Nelson-Dean, Deschutes National Forest spokesperson.
Those responsible for each wildfire will be liable for firefighting costs and will face criminal charges.
Not only is it reckless for someone to deliberately light the forest on fire in the middle of a drought and a pandemic, but it also creates a serious safety issue for nearby communities and takes resources away from responding to naturally caused fires, Nelson-Dean said.
“With the Rosland Road Fire, if the winds had gone a different way it would have potentially burned down homes within the Newberry Estates,” Nelson-Dean said.
Firefighters have been on alert this week. In addition to the suspicious fires, officials prepared Tuesday for another night of thunderstorms that could spark wildfires across the region. Monday’s thunderstorm caused a 4-acre wildfire outside of Prineville and four other small fires that were immediately extinguished.
“Last night we did not get that many, which is good,” Kassidy Kern, spokesperson for the Ochoco National Forest, said Tuesday. “The ones that we had were really manageable.”
The National Weather Service office in Pendleton issued a red flag warning until 10 p.m. Tuesday, which means weather conditions create extreme fire danger. The weather service also issued a heat advisory from 8 a.m. Wednesday to 8 p.m. Thursday, when temperatures could reach 100 degrees in parts of Central Oregon.
Fire crews take extra precaution during extreme weather conditions, Kern said.
“We position those resources in the forest, so they can effectively and efficiently manage multiple fire starts,” Kern said.
Firefighters responded at 6:44 p.m. Monday to the Little Grizzly Fire, a 4-acre fire caused by lightning east of Grizzly Mountain and northwest of Prineville near the Ochoco West subdivision. Several crews, fire engines and a helicopter are working to contain the fire.
Rainfall Monday night helped keep the Little Grizzly Fire from spreading, but the forecast is much drier the rest of the week.
“Luckily the lightning last night came with some precipitation, which really helped moderate the activity on the Little Grizzly Fire,” Kern said Tuesday. “Now the forecast is for dry lightning which is our concern.”
Fire crews will be ready no matter what this week’s weather brings, Kern said.
“If this does come through like it’s predicted, we’ll make sure all of our resources are here and ready to respond,” Kern said.