Columbia Gorge wildfire burns 3rd home

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GRANTS PASS, Ore. — Strong winds continued to fan a wildfire in the Columbia Gorge that has burned a third house and was pushing into the Mount Hood National Forest, fire officials said Wednesday.

Fire spokesman Justin de Ruyter said the Blackburn fire, part of the Government Flat Complex, has grown to more than 13 square miles in an area 10 miles southwest of The Dalles. It was 15 percent contained.

The owners of many of the 73 homes scattered through rugged canyons covered in trees and brush have not cleared fuel from around the buildings and roads leading to them, making it tough for firefighters to save them, deRuyter said.

“It happens every year,” he said.

Residents were allowed back to about a dozen homes that had been evacuated along Obrist Road, one of several rural roads running between long canyons on the northern flank of Mount Hood. Homes on a stretch of Mill Creek Road remained evacuated.

With more firefighters continuing to come in, the attack shifted to the western flank of the fire, where it was pushing into the Mount Hood National Forest. The U.S. Forest Service closed the Knebal Springs campground and several forest roads close to the burn area. Burnout operations to strengthen fire lines were planned. Firefighters hoped to make significant progress, because lightning was forecast for later in the week, de Ruyter said.

Ranked as the top priority fire in Oregon and Washington — and fourth in the nation — the fire continues to get new personnel despite a crunch on nationwide firefighting resources. More than 800 firefighters and support personnel are fighting the fire. The cost has gone over $3 million after five days. Three National Guard helicopters joined the fight, bringing air resources to nine helicopters. Two structural task forces that had been protecting homes were released, leaving four on the fire.

Two smaller fires in the complex were under control, de Ruyter said.

In southwestern Oregon, firefighters braced for more lightning, which started a series of fires in remote forest areas last month. Scattered thunderstorms were predicted for Wednesday and Thursday.

The Douglas Complex was 79 percent contained across an area covering 76 square miles of mostly federal forest seven miles north of Glendale. A total of 1,243 personnel remained on the fire, which threatened 545 structures. Cost to date was $48.7 million.

The Big Windy Complex remained 20 percent contained at 37 square miles in the Rogue River Canyon, a popular destination for whitewater rafters 25 miles northwest of Grants Pass. The Rogue River trail and roads used to shuttle rafts remained closed. The cost was $23 million.

The Whiskey Complex was 75 percent contained at 27 square miles on national forest six miles east of Tiller. It has cost $18 million to date.