Fire forced the evacuation of seven homes in Rowena last night and the steep terrain, combined with high winds and expected high temperatures today, were ideal conditions for a big fire, an official said.
As of 9 a.m. this morning, Wednesday, Aug. 6, the fire was at around 200 acres and rapidly growing, said spokesman Justin de Ruyter with the Oregon State Fire Marshal incident command team.
Overnight, various levels of evacuation orders were given to 20 homes —ranging from get ready to leave to get out now — but de Ruyter expected that number to “increase quite a bit.”
From his position at milepost 76 off of Interstate 84, “We’re sitting down here watching it, and it’s running. We’re going to have a big fire day.”
Winds were already at 20 to 25 mph and expected to reach 35 to 40 mph. Temperatures were expected to reach the 90s. “We’re really at the mercy of Mother Nature today,” he said. “We get limited pretty quickly on what we can and can’t do on these fires.”
While at least one helicopter has arrived on scene, as winds increase to above 30 mph through the day, incident managers will begin to question the safety of air response, Ruyter said.
The fire was reported at about 9:30 p.m. Tuesday, said Mid-Columbia Fire & Rescue Division Chief Dave Lapof. The cause was unknown.
“We could smell smoke and see the orange glow of the fire from our home last night,” said evacuated homeowner Erica Burr, who lives in the 6200 block of Highway 30. “Around 9:30, the sheriff came banging on the door and told us it was a level 3 evacuation. Firefighters are camping out on our lawn right now and we spent the night at a neighbor’s. This morning we fed firefighters breakfast and now all we can do is wait.”
She turned on the sprinklers at her home, telling firefighters “to make themselves at home and to help themselves to anything in the refrigerator. We’re just really appreciative. The important thing is that we are out, our neighbors are out and everything else is replaceable.”
The hillside is so steep that it’s too dangerous for fire crews to operate.
“[If] we put guys on a hillside right now, we’d probably end up killing them. So the challenge is going to be to go get out ahead of this and put some lines down as much as we can and hold it there,” de Ruyter said.
A concern with high winds is that they can carry embers, which can start spot fires as much as a quarter to half mile ahead of the main fire, he said.
“One of our biggest concerns is if the fire extends to the top of the hill,” de Ruyter said. “It’s not uncommon for fires like this to make 3- to 6-miles runs under the current weather conditions.”
Mid-Columbia Fire & Rescue officials fairly quickly saw that the fire would exceed their resources, and by 2 a.m. they started the “conflagration” process to seek state help, Lapof said. By 6:30 a.m., state resources were on their way to fight the fire, he said.
“When the fire started it started running right up the hill there, which is right where those homes are,” Lapof said of a cluster of some 70 homes. Because it was heading so quickly for homes, “that’s a bad omen,” he said, and the decision was made to seek outside help.
In all, some 15 paid and volunteer firefighters from Mid-Columbia Fire & Rescue were on the fire. Also helping were Dallesport Fire Department, Hood River County Task Force, Oregon Department of forestry, the U.S. Forest Service, and, so far this morning, Washington County fire crews, Lapof said.
While the fire calmed down some during the night, with the morning winds and increasing temperature, it started running again at about 8:30 a.m., Lapof said.
The American Red cross opened an evacuation shelter at the Mosier Grange, but as of this morning, nobody had checked into it, Lapof said.
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