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Showers aid John Day firefight

PORTLAND — Firefighters and rainfall blunted a grasslands fire that threatened an Eastern Oregon city.

Two overnight showers dropped a tenth of an inch of rain, slowing the flames enough for authorities to lift be-ready-to-leave notices given Thursday to neighborhoods at the edge of John Day.

No homes were damaged and the haze that blanketed the neighborhoods was replaced by blue skies.

“Everything’s pretty calm now,” resident Rick Minster said by phone Friday. “I can look out my window here, kind of to the north, and I can’t see any smoke at all.”

Minster estimated the flames got within a quarter-mile of the neighborhood on the east end and a mile on the north side. Plenty of firefighters were on hand, he said, and several planes were used to attack the fire.

“It was quite the air show for a while,” he said.

Lightning started the Grouse Mountain Fire on Wednesday, and the blaze has been fueled by grass, sagebrush, and juniper and pine trees.

The wind shifted Thursday night and drove the flames south toward the city limits. The fire area expanded rapidly, from about 2,000 acres to about 11,500 acres, or about 18 square miles. City police told residents to get their belongings together.

“We were all ready to move,” said Blanche Lundbom, who lives in the same neighborhood as Minster. “It was pretty scary.”

Gov. John Kitzhaber late Thursday authorized the state fire marshal to mobilize structural firefighters from other parts of the state to help local crews protect the 75 structures that were threatened.

John Day has about 1,800 residents and is the largest city in sparsely populated Grant County. It is named for the John Day River, which in turn is named for a hunter who was part of the Astor Expedition that traveled west in 1811. The city saw an influx of Chinese miners and laborers in the late 19th Century and one of its major tourist attractions is the Kam Wah Chung & Co. Museum.

David Morman, a spokesman for fire crews, said that when he woke up Friday morning, it was overcast and considerably cooler after the showers, and he figured the fire fight had turned a corner.

Then he learned that flames flared up in burned over grass at the southern part of the city where a separate, smaller fire had approached the city two days ago.

A fire truck was sent to take care of that, but, Morman said, “I guess maybe we’re not out of the woods yet.”

The fire is part of the GC Complex of fires in Grant County. That in turn is one of nine major fires or complexes of fires in Oregon, all coming after barrages of lightning since late July.

Four are on forests in the southwestern part of the state. One is on the eastern flank of the Cascade Range near Sisters, and four are in Eastern Oregon.

The governor’s office said Friday it is surveying southwest Oregon businesses to see if an economic disaster needs to be declared. Businesses that depend on tourism have been hard hit by smoky skies and the closing of a section of the Rogue River. Such a declaration could give them access to low-interest loans, helping them survive this rough period.

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.


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