Destructive Oregon wildfire threatens homes

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Updated: August 8, 2014, 11:53 AM

 

THE DALLES, Ore. — Authorities say the wildfire burning in Oregon's wind-swept Columbia River Gorge has destroyed a home, damaged two others and is threatening 740 more.

Residents of more than 140 homes have been told to evacuate and nearly 600 households have been put on alert in the community of Rowena near The Dalles.

The basalt walls of the gorge east of Portland funnel winds that draw wind surfers from afar, but what's good for recreation gives firefighters fits.

"You look in one direction, and there's a fire," said fire spokesman Mike Waite. "You look the other way and there are people out there wind surfing."

The blaze covered about 5 square miles by Friday morning, according to fire officials. Winds Friday afternoon were expected to pick up again, with gusts up to 30 mph, making white caps on the Columbia River as it flows by the fire.

The flames started Tuesday in brush, spread rapidly, and forced hundreds of people to flee. Many were allowed to return home Thursday, but the fire spread despite the efforts of more than 400 firefighters.

Ken Wright, who helped his daughter, son-in-law and their baby and pets evacuate Wednesday, said the fire surrounded his daughter's house and four other homes. The family lives about half a mile from where the fire started and was one of the first seven homes evacuated.

"It was scary to watch your house almost burn up, it was pretty crazy," said Wright, who watched — from a safe distance — fire engines battling the blaze around his daughter's house. "It's amazing how those firefighters kept the houses from burning, with the fire going around them."

The family has been told not to return yet, because the fire may go back through the area, Wright said.

Thursday afternoon, gusts pushed the flames back into areas where residents had only hours before been given the OK to return home. A few residents were again evacuated while crews put out fires that had run across containment lines.

Fire crews were digging protective ditches around individual houses.

At a briefing in The Dalles on Friday, governor John Kitzhaber issued a warning to Oregon residents.

"This is a very explosive fire season," he said. "We're having enough trouble with lightening caused fires, so people should really be very intentional about using good fire safety practices when they're in the woods recreating or using power tools."

The cause of the fire is listed as under investigation, meaning lightning has been ruled out and investigators are looking at human causes. Waite says the fire teams have pinpointed the fire's start.

Elsewhere in the West, three firefighters have been injured battling a wildfire burning on the Idaho side of the Snake River across from Oregon and Washington.

Fire spokeswoman Jill Cobb says one firefighter received a gash on his leg from a chain saw and required stiches. Another firefighter suffered heat related problems and a third sustained a scratched cornea.

The fire on Friday grew to 76 square miles and destroyed a sixth structure.

In Washington state, fire officials are considering the use of explosives to build a fire break on an inaccessible section of a fast-growing wildfire near Ellensburg that's grown to nearly 14 square miles. The lightning-caused fire is being fought by more than 700 people.

And a wildfire burning 10 miles north of Keller, Washington, is threatening nearly 150 homes and other structures. Thirty-two residents living nearest to the fire have been evacuated and others have been told to be ready to leave at a moment's notice.