Lightning covers region with fire

5,000 recent strikes lit 68 new Northwest blazes; Obama declares disaster



GRANTS PASS, Ore. — Lightning has started dozens of new wildfires in the Northwest, forcing incident commanders to juggle crews and equipment Tuesday as a new round of storms approached.

Meanwhile, three firefighters who deployed emergency shelters when a thunderstorm whipped up the Beaver fire in Northern California were released unhurt from a hospital Tuesday, but they weren’t yet back on the fire line.

Corey Wilford, a Beaver fire spokesman, said there was no immediate word whether an investigation will be conducted, but that they are usual in cases like this. The firefighters’ names were not released.

Red flag warnings for hot, dry winds remained in effect in the mountainous area of Siskiyou County, about 15 miles northwest of Yreka. About 150 rural homes have been evacuated. The fire was 30 percent contained after burning across 44 square miles of the Klamath National Forest north of the Klamath River.

At a news conference at a fire coordination center in Redding, Calif., Interior Secretary Sally Jewell called on Congress to enact legislation allowing federal disaster funds to be spent on the biggest wildfires, and CalFire Chief Ken Pimlott said three years of drought have contributed to explosive fire conditions across Northern California.

Pimlott noted that on Friday, eight firefighters had minor burns in Mendocino County when they had to retreat to a safety zone.

“The difference we are seeing is how quickly the fires are growing once they start,” he said. “Every afternoon like clockwork, these fires are almost explosive.”

Disaster in state

President Barack Obama signed a disaster declaration Monday for Washington, where hundreds of homes have burned in wildfires in the past month. It orders federal aid to supplement state, tribal and local recovery efforts in Okanogan County and the Confederated Tribes of Colville Reservation, and says federal funding is also available for hazard mitigation.

The Northwest Incident Coordination Center in Portland has reported more than 5,000 recent lightning strikes across Oregon and Washington, starting 68 new fires covering 13 square miles. More lightning was on the way, but this time more rain is expected. The storms were predicted to move out of the region by Thursday.

The two biggest fires were grass fires in eastern Oregon’s Gilliam County. One was 10 miles north of Condon, and the other 8 miles west of Arlington.

Spokeswoman Carol Connolly said the Northwest remains the nation’s top wildfire priority, but some crews and equipment that had been fighting Oregon’s 11 existing large fires were being sent to the new fires.

Existing large fires have burned across 220 square miles of timber, brush and grass, stretching from the California border north through the Cascades, and east to the Idaho border.

Wetter weather ahead

More lightning was forecast Tuesday and Wednesday. As the current storm system moved northwest and out of Oregon, a wetter system was expected to enter southwestern Oregon and move across the Cascades into the central and northeastern parts of the state.

In Northern California, there were more evacuations of remote rural homes about 25 miles southwest of Yreka, and shelters were set up in Fort Jones and Scott Valley. The fires there, called the July Complex, were 29 percent contained after burning 26 square miles.

In Washington, a new lightning-caused fire about 30 miles northwest of Olympia at Haven Lake grew to nearly 300 acres since it began Monday in private timberlands. It was not threatening any structures.

Firefighters were starting to get a handle on other wildfires burning across the state, although some were still growing.

Several lightning caused fires in central Washington remained active, including the Devil’s Elbow Complex, which had grown to nearly 32 square miles in north-central Washington.