Falling tree kills firefighter in Central Oregon



PORTLAND — A falling tree killed a firefighter and injured another Thursday as lightning started wildfires in Central Oregon.

The contract firefighters were part of a crew removing hazardous trees during the initial attack on a wildfire started by lightning late Wednesday, said Jean Nelson-Dean, spokeswoman for the Deschutes National Forest. Rappel crews responded and called for an ambulance.

One of the firefighters died at the scene. The other, who was able to walk, was taken by ambulance to a hospital.

The firefighters’ names have not been released. They worked for R&K Water Services out of Bonney Lake, Wash., Nelson-Dean said.

The Deschutes County Sheriff’s Office was investigating the incident.

Twenty-seven wilderness firefighters have died in the line of duty in the U.S. this year, most of them in an Arizona fire that killed 19. The death is the first in Oregon, but the second blamed on snags or tree falls. A firefighter in California died for the same reason in June.

The firefighter killed Thursday was among more than 4,000 battling active blazes that are burning on more than 60 square miles in Oregon.

The National Interagency Fire Center earlier this week listed the Northwest as its highest priority, giving Oregon and Washington the first shot at crews and equipment as they become available.

That’s typical for this time of year because the Northwest has a later fire season — late July and August — than most of the other 10 regions. The fire season tends to start in the Southeast and shift to the Southwest before migrating north to Northern California and the Pacific Northwest.

Nationally, the wildfire season has been relatively mild this year, with the total number of fires and the area burned running at about 60 percent of the 10-year average.

The Pacific Northwest hopes to follow the trend, but the fire center on Thursday released its fire outlook for August, and the picture is not pretty because of the dry land.

“We paint the areas that are predicted to be most active in red, and almost all of Oregon is painted red for August,” said Don Smurthwaite, a fire center spokesman based in Boise. “The fire danger is real in Oregon.”

The wild card is lightning.

National Weather Service meteorologist Joe Solomon in Pendleton said 800 strikes were recorded overnight, most of them Thursday morning.

He said at least that many more can be expected Thursday as thunderstorms move through central, north-central and far eastern Oregon. The storms are also expected to bring spotty rains totaling a quarter of an inch or more.

About 40 small fires were reported along the Cascade crest and Central Oregon.

There are eight wildfires considered major that arte burning in the Pacific Northwest, mostly in Oregon.

Most attention has gone to the Douglas Complex wildfires in southwest Oregon, which were started by lightning last week and have combined to scorch about 45 square miles.

No houses have burned, but nearly 500 are threatened. People in more than 100 homes have been advised to evacuate, and the Oregon National Guard is providing aircraft and manpower after Gov. John Kitzhaber declared a state of emergency in Douglas and Josephine counties.