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AUG. 18, 9 p.m. UPDATE: Blackburn fire grows to 1,500 acres

City water plant, residences are top priority in conflagration plan

Wind stirs up flames just across Mill Creek from Timothy Hetrick's home.

Wind stirs up flames just across Mill Creek from Timothy Hetrick's home. Photo by Kathy Ursprung.

— The Blackburn Fire grew to approximately 1500 acres burning within the City of The Dalles Watershed on a mixed ownership of private and public land (SDS Lumber, LLC; Bureau of Land Management; and City of The Dalles) Sunday afternoon.

After assessing fire conditions Sunday evening, firefighters are hoping to make a stand at a large wheat field between breaks of Mill Creek's south fork and Skyline Road, said David Morman, Oregon Department of Forestry spokesman. The field will serve as a large defensible space.

The Upper Mill Creek Road and Reservoir Road, from their junction upstream, are closed to all public access except for area residents.

A Level II Evacuation notification was placed in effect earlier on Sunday for this area. Residents of 35 homes in the Reservoir Road and Upper Mill Creek Road were asked to make final preparations and get SET to evacuate if the need arises. (Level I - Ready; Level II - Set; Level III - Go Now!).

Two outbuildings were confirmed to have been destroyed in the Upper Mill Creek drainage. The outbuildings were not reachable by fire apparatus due to inaccessibility.

"That was primarily because they were in a location beyond a non-weight-rated bridge," Morman said, adding that bridge owners should consider getting their bridges rated to assure heavy equipment is safe to use them in emergency situations like this one.

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Sunset takes on a rosy cast from blowing smoke of the Government Flat Fire Complex Sunday evening, Aug. 18, as seen from Skyline road near a wheat field where firefighters hope to hold the fire at bay on the east side.

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Rigs from an estimated 24 different firefighting jurisdictions gathered at Wahtonka High School incident command after a day of fighting the Government Flat Fire Complex.

The Incident Management teams are coordinating their efforts with Wasco County Sheriff's Office and the American Red Cross, in the Sheriff's Level II notification.

Protection of the downstream City of The Dalles water treatment facility and structures in the vicinity of the Blackburn Fire continues to be high priorities for work efforts. The Dalles Public Works Department is working closely with the fire suppression personnel in protecting the Treatment Facility located 1 mile east of the fire.

On the Government Flat Fire, crews are holding the fire within its' current lines at 229 acres. The Incident Management personnel are expecting the risk of further fire spread to be low.

The Wells Fire remains contained at 66 acres and will continue to be patrolled.

Fire personnel will continue their suppression efforts through the night.

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Tents await firefighters returning to Wahtonka High School after the day shift fighting the Government Flats Fire Complex.

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A view from the Mill Creek Grange shows smoke farther south in the creek drainage.

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A Mill Creek area resident asks firefighters for information

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Drifting smoke and ash partly obscures firefighters examining the grounds at Timothy Hetrick's house on upper Mill Creek Road.

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Caterers prepare to feed an estimated 450-500 firefighters coming in off the day shift this evening.

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A caterer's message to firefighters

Key points:

  1. A level two evacuation notice has been issued by the Wasco County Sheriff’s Office for all of Reservoir Road and Upper Mill Creek Road because of Blackburn Fire Active.
  2. About 70 homes are threatened and the level two notice is for 35 homes in the area.
  3. A Level II notice means residents should be prepared to leave. Level III means evacuate immediately.
  4. If needed, the American Red Cross has established a shelter for displaced residents at Dry Hollow Elementary School located at 1314 E. 19th St. in The Dalles.
  5. Firefighters are posted at the Wicks Water Treatment Plant, a fire protection priority under of the forces mustered under the Conflagration Act.
  6. If the water plant had to be evacuated and shut down, water would still be available for Mill Creek Road customers for about three days. The city would call into service city wells to serve other city residents.

When firefighters stopped by his Mill Creek Road house Sunday, Aug. 18, and asked, “Are you ready to leave?” Timothy Hetrick went into his house and came out again, his Bible in one hand, his pistol in the other. He was ready.

Hetrick’s spouse and three children had already left the house with the family’s four dogs. The cat could not be caught and the chickens continued to mill around the yard. Hetfick’s house sits on a little rise about 30 feet from Mill Creek. On the opposite bank, winds had stirred up the flames licking at the base of trees.

“You should have seen it last night,” said Jackie Ross of Madras, who sat vigil with her son. “The hillside was just lit up.”

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The Wasco County Sheriff's Office has issued a Level II Evacuation notification for all of Reservoir Road and Upper Mill Creek Road because of Blackburn Fire activity. While about 70 homes are threatened, the Level II Evacuation Notice is for about 35 homes in the area.

At this time, no homes will be evacuated, however there is a high probability that an evacuation could occur. Residents of the affected areas should prepare for immediate departure in the event that a full evacuation (Level III) be declared.

When you hear the terms Level I, II, or III evacuation notice, remember "ready, set, go." Level I means be aware of the fire in your area and start getting ready, Level II means make final preparations and get set to evacuate, and Level III means evacuate immediately--GO NOW.

If needed, the American Red Cross has established a shelter for displaced residents at Dry Hollow Elementary School located at 1314 E. 19th St. in The Dalles.

Residents all along Mill Creek Road could be seen watching the hillside. Some had sprinklers going in the hope of keeping fire at bay.

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Farther up the road, a resident said a shed had been destroyed by the fire. Firefighters were moving from home to home helping homeowners remove brush and other contributors to fire danger, said Capt. Steve Black of the Cornelius Fire Department, manned a water truck with Brad Shinpaugh of the Forest Grove Fire Department. The rig was parked at the top of Reservoir Road.

Up the road, residents were preparing to bug out fast, cars parked headed out at the end of drives so they could leave quickly. Though the roads weren’t blocked, cars heading into the fire zone were advised to turn around.

Along Reservoir Road, residents strolled and talked amongst one another, while keeping an eye on the sky to the south and southwest, where smoke billowed high in the sky — much of it from an intentional burnout designed to get the fire under control.

This isn’t the residents’ first rodeo. The Mosier Fire a few years ago burned down to Mill Creek Road just above where they live. They also remember evacuating during the flood of 1996, when the flooding creek washed through the neighborhood.

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At about 5 p.m., the fire was less than a mile from the Wicks Water Treatment Plant. It was calm at that moment, but last night two engines, a crash truck and six firefighters stood watch.

“It can still come down the canyon. It can still come over the hill,” said Dave Anderson, city public works director, pointing to the ridge above the plant where smoke billows. “We’re still at risk.”

In the Sheldon Ridge Fire of 2002, the water plant had to be evacuated, which requires shutting treatment down and, at that time, left Mill Creek Road water customers without water.

“Things are different since 2002,” Anderson said. “We’ve built a large reservoir that has four million gallons of storage.”

The reservoir can supply Mill Creek residents and the city beyond for about three days in the event of an evacuation. At the same time, the city can call other wells into service, and ask residents to take conservation measures.

But at the moment, the treatment plant was safe.

“Protecting the plant is a priority in our operational plan,” said Lt. Dean Schulze of the Tualatin Valley Fire District.

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Meanwhile, a tent city has sprung up at Wahtonka High School for the many firefighters filtering into the community to fight the fire.

“The state fire marshal is overseeing the structure defense, while the Oregon Department of Forestry is in charge of the wildfire,” said Tommy Schroeder, a public information officer on the blaze.

Both missions mesh and the agencies are working to reduce redundancies where ever possible.

Firefighting resources are stretched thin in the long, hot and tinder-dry fire season and agencies from at least 24 fire districts have been called in to help.

“Not one particular jurisdiction can afford to get rid of every firefighter,” Schroeder said. “It’s community-based firefighting.”

Most of the firefighters were out fighting the fire, Schroeder said, but about 20 percent of the force works a night shift and was sleeping in the gym during the daytime.

Inside the information center, the leaders of the effort address finances, planning, resource management and logistics.

Outside, mobile showers are set up and caterers are preparing to serve 450 to 500 smoky, hungry firefighters.

“We’ve brought in a national food service contracted caterer,” said Charlie Redheffer, food unit leader for the Oregon Department of Forestry.

Forestry has its own kitchens, operated by Department of Corrections cooks and inmates from the prison, which have been at the Douglas Fire Complex and aren’t available.

“Normally, I go out with them and I’m the caterer, ordering food and planning menus,” Redheffer said.

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