Columbia River Gorge Wildfire: 275 households told to flee

Blaze pushed by gusting winds threatens small Oregon community of Rowena

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PORTLAND — A new wildfire pushed by gusting winds is threatening the small Columbia River Gorge community of Rowena, where residents of 275 homes had been told to evacuate as of Wednesday night.

Fire spokesman Dave Wells says the fire made a run along the river Wednesday evening. He says as smoke cleared, flames from the fire were visible from The Dalles, a city of about 14,000 that is about 6 miles from the blaze.

Wells says an unknown number of residents in an outlying Dalles neighborhood were told to be ready to leave if necessary.

So far no homes have burned. Wells said firefighters planned to work through the night protecting residences.

Fire spokesman Justin de Ruyter says five helicopters dropped water on the blaze earlier as winds gusted to more than 30 mph.

A section of U.S. Highway 30 was closed in the area. Rowena is about 75 miles east of Portland.

The fire began in brush Tuesday night and quickly spread to about 200 acres of timber and scrub oak in rocky, steep terrain. It grew on Wednesday but no updated acreage figure was available pending an infrared flight scheduled overnight.

Firefighters feared the Rowena fire would spread as the Gorge's famed winds kicked up to as much as 40 mph Wednesday.

"We've got a challenging fire on our hands," fire spokesman Justin de Ruyter said. "We're going to be at the mercy of Mother Nature today."

There were no immediate reports of houses burning in Rowena, an unincorporated town of fewer than 200 people. The old two-lane Highway 30 was closed, but Interstate 84 remained open.

Gov. John Kitzhaber invoked the state's authority to mobilize local fire departments to protect buildings, and structural fire crews have come from three counties.

The governor also toured Oregon's biggest wildfire, the Oregon Gulch fire, which burned six homes last week in the Siskiyou Mountains along the California border about 15 miles east of Ashland. It was 37 percent contained at 57 square miles. While in fire camp, he called on Congress to fund more forest-thinning projects to reduce the risk of wildfires.

"These fires are a symptom of a much larger forest health issue," he said. "We just have to begin to deal with the root causes. That means lending some urgency to improving the health and resiliency of our forests in a way that can produce jobs.

"It's up to the United States Congress to put resources into the (forest health issue) so that we can clean up these forests and reduce this fire risk."

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack this week said the U.S. Forest Service will soon have to start pulling funding from thinning projects and other programs to pay for the continued battle against wildfires.

Congress is divided over how to move forward on the issue.

In all, there are 10 large fires in Oregon, with nearly 4,000 people fighting them across 143 square miles of timber and rangeland. The cost to date exceeds $36.7 million.

A spokesman at the federal interagency fire center in Portland, Tom Knappenberger, said the Northwest has been at Fire Preparedness Level 5 — the top level — since July 16, and the season still has a long way to go.

"It's just an indicator of how bad this fire season is, and it's only Aug. 6," he said. "It's just amazing."

Washington wildfires

The Snag Canyon wildfire near Ellensburg has grown to 6,400 acres and is being fought by about 450 firefighters.

The Washington Incident Management Team reports the fire was started by lightning on Saturday and is burning through grass, brush and timber about 12 miles northwest of Ellensburg.

The fire has destroyed eight homes and threatens 179 structures.

Firefighters are also battling a wildfire complex on the Colville Indian Reservation, where residents of about 20 homes have been evacuated. The Devil's Elbow Complex of three wildfires was detected Sunday and likely ignited by lightning.

It has burned across about 800 acres.