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Wind change pushes fire toward John Day, Oregon

PORTLAND — Pushed by shifting winds, a new Eastern Oregon wildfire changed course late Thursday and burned toward the north end of the town of John Day.

The Grant County sheriff’s office issued pre-evacuation notices for homes in three neighborhoods. There were no reports of damage to homes in the community of about 1,700 people as of late Thursday night, Oregon Forestry Department spokesman David Morman said.

Fire crews planned to work through the night with bulldozers, engines and ground crews to begin establishing fire lines on the Grouse Mountain Fire, the spokesman said.

Earlier in the day, the fire was estimated to have burned 3 square miles. There was no estimate of its size Thursday night as it burned in grass and brush.

Morman said the fire was burning east of U.S. Highway 395, which remained open.

The Grouse Mountain Fire was one of a number of fires that started Wednesday in Grant County. Mormon said its cause is under investigation.

Weather forecasts in the area called for lightning and erratic winds through the weekend. In addition to fighting the flames, firefighters had to contend with rattlesnakes and falling tree snags, Morman said.

One Grant County lightning strike touched off a fire on Wednesday that threatened 400 businesses and homes near the towns of John Day and Canyon City.

Tankers dropped fire retardant and helicopters unloaded buckets of water, and by Thursday morning, that fire was contained to 400 smoldering acres.

Lightning was blamed for other Eastern Oregon fires, including one that grew to 38 square miles — more than 24,000 acres, in the thinly populated southeastern corner of the state near Jordan Valley.

Two more fires of less than a square mile were reported in the grass and sagebrush region.

More than 1,000 lightning strikes were recorded statewide in a 24-hour period Wednesday and Thursday, touching off 66 known fires, but Oregon sometimes sees 3,000 strikes in a day, said Jeree Mills, a spokeswoman for the federal fire center in Portland.

However, Mills said fire weather experts see the persistence of the barrages as unusual.

“We expect to get more lightning today,” she said Thursday. “They expect to get more lightning Friday. They expect more lightning Saturday.”

In Central Oregon and the Blue Mountains of Eastern Oregon, the lightning is expected to last through Sunday.

That means initial attack crews assigned to snuff small fires will be busy, and fire spotters will be looking for days afterward for fires in timbered areas that take longer to show up.

A few miles southeast of John Day, visitors to a campground near the Strawberry Mountain Wilderness area were told to be ready to evacuate as “holdover fires” from Wednesday’s lightning broke out.

A round of lightning in late July touched off major fires in southwestern Oregon.

Fire camps there reported progress Thursday in establishing containment lines, without setbacks.

At the largest of them, the Douglas Complex, the fire-fighting force has grown to more than 3,100 and the fire area to more than 66 square miles. But evacuation advisories have been lifted for the last of the residents of 105 households advised to leave in the first days of the fire.

At the Whiskey complex of fires in the Umpqua National Forest, fire spokeswoman Alexis West said crews had gotten lines around fire that raced out of a creek bottom on Tuesday, jumping roads and fire lines and forcing about 100 firefighters to retreat to safety zones.

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press


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