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Lightning sparks John Day fires

— PORTLAND — Oregon state Forestry Department and National Forest firefighting crews were dispatched to the area around the eastern Oregon community of John Day on Wednesday as several lightning-sparked wildfires erupted there, a fire spokesman said.

Due to the property and lives at risk, several air tankers were sent to drop retardant and a helicopter dropped water to help ground crews, Forest Service spokesman Michael Stearly said late Wednesday night in a statement.

Firefighters responded to many smoke and fire reports after a lightning storm hit the area Wednesday afternoon.

A 75-acre fire six miles north of John Day put up a large column of smoke visible for miles.

Stormy weather was affecting the wildfire picture in much of Oregon.

More than 6,000 people are now fighting major fires in the state, including one that caused about 100 to retreat when flames raced from a creek bottom to jump roads and fire lines.

Lightning strikes touched off forest fires in the southwestern part of the state late last month, and 914 strikes were reported statewide overnight Tuesday and Wednesday. It was the beginning of some days of unsettled weather that could bring rainfall Thursday and later, forecasts said.

“We expect to keep getting this for the rest of the week,” said Jeree Mills, a spokeswoman at the federal fire center in Portland. “It can help, or it can cause major activity. It’s hard to tell.”

On the southern edge of a fire named Whiskey in Douglas County, fire burned vigorously out of Beaver Creek, and the crews in the area were told to retreat to safety zones. “Everyone left in an orderly fashion,” fire spokeswoman Alexis West said. She said nobody was hurt.

Fire commanders said they would reassess their strategy, but they planned to use bulldozers and aircraft to push the fire back within the containment lines that had been drawn.

West said it wasn’t clear exactly what whipped up the fire, but crews have found the local microclimates make for turbulent conditions between 4 p.m. and 7 p.m.

“It’s kind of our witching hour,” she said.

To the west at the Big Windy Fire where the driver of a water truck died in a crash Tuesday, fire crews reported they have kept flames from jumping the Rogue River to the north. The area had three separate fires until Tuesday, when they merged into one.

At a third southwest Oregon fire, the Douglas Complex, residents of about 60 homes who had been advised to evacuate were told they could return home.

In all, the four major fire areas in southwestern Oregon total nearly 99 square miles, or about 63,000 acres. A smaller fire in Central Oregon, also caused by lightning, is burning on about a square mile of ponderosa pine forest, but fire crews said it was proving increasingly difficult to control.

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.


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