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Conditions 'fluid and dynamic' at east end of Rowena Fire

Friday and Saturday actions critical in making fire progress

A helicopter drops down to a pond in the Foley Lakes trailer park to refill it's basket as the fight to stop the Rowena Fire west of The Dalles continued Thursday afternoon, Aug. 8. Mark B. Gibson photo

A helicopter drops down to a pond in the Foley Lakes trailer park to refill it's basket as the fight to stop the Rowena Fire west of The Dalles continued Thursday afternoon, Aug. 8. Mark B. Gibson photo Photo by Mark Gibson.

— “Fluid and dynamic” was the recurring description of the Rowena Fire as it approached closest to The Dalles, as fire authorities described conditions in the fire zone at a public meeting tonight at The Dalles High School.

Residents in C section of Foley Lakes as well as households along Highway 30 from west of Rowena to the Pinewood Mobile Manor returned to mandatory evacuation (Level 3) Thursday afternoon after a reduced Level 1 designation in the morning. The more severe rating was because of the potential danger of rapid change in the fire.

“Because of the threats from the fire, it's either at national priority level or close to it,” said John Buckman, Oregon Department of Forestry Team 1 incident commander. “It was ranked very high, if not the highest for a day or two.”

As a result of that assessment, resources continue to pour into the the area. The number of firefighters stood at 700 this evening. Three big helicopters with high-capacity water tanks are on scene and two more should be arriving Friday. Managers are also expecting heavy air tankers. The fire also has three Type 1 fire teams on scene, which will be working the fire through the night, Buckman said adding that attacking the fire meant acting purposefully and systematically.

“It's going to be a hard night tonight,” Buckman said. “Friday and Saturday are going to be important days to make accomplishments.”

The fire rekindled near C section of Foley Lakes in the early afternoon today and some structures – possibly outbuildings – were believed damaged, said Wasco County Chief Dep. Lane Magill, but the information has not yet been confirmed. The same is true of a report that a barn had been destroyed on the Hidden Valley Ranch.

The fire, which started late in the evening of Aug. 5 near Mayer State Park, has been under the joint incident command of the Oregon Department of Forestry and the Oregon State Fire Marshal since noon on Aug. 6.

Bob Palmer, fire chief of Mid-Columbia Fire and Rescue, described the fire as a remake of the 1998 Rowena Fire.

“It's actually run pretty much exactly the same way as it did in 1998,” Palmer said, “because that's pretty much the way the weather works around here.”

Within four hours of arriving on the fire scene Aug. 5, Palmer called for conflagration resources, recognizing the familiar scenario playing out in the difficult to access areas of the the craggy cliffs and ridges around Rowena. Through the following morning, the fire was believed to be less than 100 acres.

Oregon Department of Forestry Team 1 incident command was on scene within 13 hours, said Lynn Burdett, U.S. Forest Service area manager for the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area. She praised the coordinated fire response at both the local and state levels that allowed for the rapid mobilization of firefighting resources.

Before state resources arrived on scene, the coordinated response involved mutual aid partners Dallesport, Wishram, Lyle, Mosier, Hood River, Wy'East and Parkdale, in addition to Mid-Columbia Fire and Rescue.

When the Forestry team arrived, it was detailed to battle the wildland fire.

The Oregon State Fire Marshal's Green Team, under the command of John Ingrao, tackled structure defense in the wildland area.

Once their teams arrived, that freed some of the Mid-Columbia Fire and Rescue crew to return to the station and rest up in anticipation of resuming their usual fire and medical response duties, which don't stop when a wildland conflagration occurs.

The fire stood at about 500 acres through much of the afternoon, pearched on the hill with firefighters protecting the homes of the Rowena area. Then 20-mile-an-hour winds with gusts of up to 35 kicked up, Buckman said.

“At 1700 (5 p.m.) the fire got into a patch of heavy trees and sprinted over the ridge,” Buckman said.

The fire made a strong run of three miles in three hours, pushing toward the residential areas of Foley Lakes, the Hidden Valley Ranch and near the country club.

A lot of partners came together to defend the residential areas, Buckman said, including many private land owners and the farmers of the Columbia District east of The Dalles. Even a private bulldozer joined the effort to build fireline around the blaze before it reached the homes.

“It was truly a combined effort that brought the fire down,” Buckman said.

Kristy Beachamp, emergency services manager for the Wasco County Sheriff's office urged all Wasco County residents to sign up for Citizen Alerts as a way to be prepared for emergencies like this one. The alerts are one way residents in the fire zone are being notified of evacuation levels.

Only about half of Wasco County homes have gone to the Wasco County website (www.co.wasco.or.us) and signed up for the service.

“Privacy laws protect cell phone numbers, even from first responders, so if you have a cell phone only, please register your phone so we can get in touch with you,” Beachamp said.

She also urged residents to make an emergency kit and have an emergency plan for events like this one. She also recommended making provisions early for pets. Home at Last Humane Society is sheltering pets for families that don't have anywhere to keep them. It can also help with making provisions for livestock.

The sheriff's office has a recorded update phone line for the Rowena Fire at 541-506-2792. Twitter and Facebook feeds are also tracking the fire.

Look for more information from the fire briefing in Friday's Chronicle.

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