A series of human-caused fires have plagued Sherman County’s backroads since July, and there’s a $6,000 reward for information leading to an arrest.
Several fires in east Wasco County in late August are believed to be connected to the same arsonist, but two other fires — the latest one occurring Tuesday near The Dalles watershed — in Wasco County are not believed to be by the same person.
In all, Sherman County has recorded nine suspicious fires, said Sherman County Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Geremy Shull. All have happened on back roads within an eight-mile radius of Moro.
It seems almost yearly that human-caused fires are reported in Sherman County, but they’re usually along Highway 97. These are on the roads that locals are more likely to know about.
Suspicion has run high in the county, and Shull recounted hearing about one farmer who saw dust from a retreating vehicle, chased it down, only to find it was a neighbor, and then doing the same thing again only to find another neighbor.
Shull said the sheriff’s office has leads on four vehicles, but they’re all different in description.
Each fire is started “right next to the road and there’s no ignition source,” Shull said.
The fires were reported on July 12, 22, and 23, two on Aug. 20, two on Aug. 30, and one on Sept. 3. The riskiest one was the Aug. 30 fire at the corner of Erskin and Moore. It threatened occupied structures, Shull said.
A tenth fire, on Baseline Road, was found to be caused by a bird tangling in a transformer, he said.
“They’ve all been set on days when there’s little to no wind, which is kind of odd, it’s like somebody wants to start a fire but not a very big one,” Shull said.
“They’ve all been reported by farmers that live in the area,” he said. “They see smoke and it’s instantly called in.” They are on high alert and are able to respond with their own firefighting equipment, and South Sherman Fire & Rescue has also responded to each fire, Shull said.
Farmers are fed up with the fire bug. “A lot of the comments being said by the farmers are ‘You guys better catch him before we do,’ So I can take the hint on that one,” Shull said.
The Oregon State Fire Marshal’s office is helping with the investigation, as is an arson investigator with the Oregon State Police.
Scott Goff, deputy state fire marshal, said he hasn’t calculated the total acreage burned, but said, “Most of them have been fairly small.”
Only three of the 10 total fires were near power lines, and at none of the fires was there evidence of vehicles with mechanical issues. Having eliminated known and potential accidental causes, “it’s down to some form of human action,” he said.
This is an unusual cluster of fires, Goff said.
“Certainly during the summertime we tend to have an increase in human-caused fires,” Goff said. “To have multiple fires set in the same geographical area in a short time period is fortunately fairly uncommon.”
Wasco County Sheriff’s Detective Sgt. Scott Williams said on Aug. 28, fires were reported, three on Easton Canyon Road and two on Moody Road.
On Sept. 3, a fire was reported at White River Station in the Wamic area, said Wasco County Sheriff Lane Magill.
On Tuesday, a bow hunter reported a fire on the 1720 Road, 180 spur, in the Mt. Hood National Forest, near The Dalles watershed,
Firefighters from the Oregon State Department of Forestry and the U.S. Forest Service responded and put out the fire, which measured 100 feet by 100 feet, said The Dalles Police Officer Brent Larson.
Larson was patrolling the watershed at the time, and was on scene 20 minutes after it was reported by the bow hunter. He took some photos of firefighting efforts.
The various agencies investigating the fires will meet on Sept. 18 to coordinate their work, Shull said.
In a press release, the Wasco County Sheriff’s Office said, “Fire danger is high at this time in Wasco County. The public should be alert to their surroundings and not create situations that could cause a fire, i.e., driving in tall grass and throwing cigarettes out of vehicles. Follow all laws and restrictions due to fire danger.”
Anyone with information on the fires is encouraged to call law enforcement. The Wasco County Sheriff’s Office can be reached at 541-506-2580 and the Sherman County Sheriff’s Office can be reached at 541-565-3622.