“Fluid and dynamic” was the recurring description of the Rowena Fire at its southeast end closest to The Dalles, as fire authorities described conditions in the fire zone at a public meeting Thursday night at The Dalles High School.
The meeting offered fire zone residents and others a glimpse into the decision-making processes involved in fighting the complicated and fast-moving fire.
After being allowed to return to their homes Thursday morning under Level 1 (get ready) evacuation warnings, 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) that afternoon. The more severe rating was because of the potential danger from rapid changes in the fire.
Law enforcement and firefighting authorities assured residents that the evacuations were necessary for their safety because of the fire’s changeability. The blaze threatens hundreds of homes in the area between Rowena and The Dalles. Many are either under mandatory evacuation or warnings of potential evacuation.
“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 in the nation for a day or two.”
As a result of that assessment, firefighting resources continue to pour into 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 hotshot fire teams on scene, who worked the fire through darkness Thursday night and Friday morning. Buckman said attacking this complex 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 Thursday destroying one home and damaging three others. Wasco County Chief Dep. A barn in the Hidden Valley Ranch has also been destroyed.
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 craggy cliffs and ridges around the community of Rowena. Through the following morning, the fire was estimated at 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. The fire is also burning on scenic area lands. 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, Palmer said.
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 and assessment of structure vulnerability because of the way the fire was moving.
“We had planned to have a couple of days, but because of the way the fire was moving, we had a couple of hours instead,” Ingrao said. Assistant chief at Hoodland, Ingrao has been incident commander at five previous The Dalles fires, among them the earlier Rowena Fire, Government Flats and the Microwave Fire.
Firefighting resources from all around the state converge to battle fires declared conflagrations under state law.
“We work for Chief Palmer once the governor enacts the legislation,” Ingrao said.
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 Wednesday afternoon, perched on the hill with firefighters protecting homes in 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, near the country club Tooley Lakes, Simonelli Road, Murray’s Addition and others.
A lot of partners came together to defend the residential areas to the southeast of the fire, 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 fire lines around the blaze before it reached the homes.
“It was truly a combined effort that brought the fire down,” Buckman said.
Firefighters have also been working on getting fire lines around the “heel” of the fire and burning out fuels near homes.
“We get rid of the fuels by firing them off,” Ingrao said.
Chief Deputy Lane Magill of the Wasco County Sheriff’s office provided details about the evacuation and said about 75 percent of Highway 30 residents and an estimated 100 percent of Foley Lakes residents complied with the mandatory evacuation orders.
The county agency had a plan in place to do a phased evacuation as needed, Magill said, but as fire movement accelerated Wednesday evening, the decision was made to immediately skip from Level 1 to Level 3 (mandatory) evacuation in the Foley Lakes area, which has about 180 homes. With the highly volatile fire, narrow roads and population congestion, authorities were worried about the risk of traffic jams slowing evacuation under urgent conditions. Fourteen or 15 deputies and two reserves responded to help with notification.
“Within 27 to 30 minutes, we had notified everybody in the park,” Magill said. “We estimated that 100 percent had evacuated within an hour to an hour and 20 minutes.”
Murray’s Addition was also evacuated out of fear the fire would jump Sevenmile Hill Road and threaten the 100 homes there, but fire crews and private landowners using public and private apparatus were able to defend the road and keep the fire from spreading farther south.
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.was-co.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.