Angry beast eats its way west: Cool, wet weather helps, but fire isn’t done by a long shot

Fire consumes four homes, runs west toward Hood River County line

national guard crews arrived this week to help firefighting efforts on the Government Flats Complex. Pictured here, Sgt. Mike Buchan looks for spot fires from a  Blackhawk helicopter.

Spc. Matthew Burnett
national guard crews arrived this week to help firefighting efforts on the Government Flats Complex. Pictured here, Sgt. Mike Buchan looks for spot fires from a Blackhawk helicopter.

More than a week later, the Blackburn Fire is still burning.

What began as a lightning strike during the early morning hours of Aug. 16 has swelled to an 11,728-acre conflagration that has consumed four homes and nine outbuildings as of Friday morning. The Blackburn Fire comprises almost the entire size of the Government Flats Complex of three wildfires burning several miles southwest of The Dalles. The other two fires in the complex have been contained for several days.

After several days of voracious activity, the fire slowed Thursday evening as rains and cooler weather slowed the flames that up until that point were consuming, on average, about 1,700 acres per day.

On Wednesday, the fire began to make a substantial run to the west, consuming timber and dry grasses as the blaze raced west into the Mt. Hood National Forest and toward the Hood River County line. The fire’s path and rate of speed was concerning enough for the Hood River County Sheriff’s Office to issue a Level I (get ready) evacuation notice Thursday afternoon for approximately 40 homes in the Fir Mountain area, including residences on Fir Mountain Road east of the irrigation ditch, Fir Mountain Loop, and Swyers Drive. That evacuation notice was lifted Friday morning for the aforementioned roads “due to favorable weather conditions overnight and lack of fire growth in the Government Complex Fire.” Sheriff Matt English said Friday morning he estimated the fire to be approximately 5 miles from the Fir Mountain area.

As of Friday morning, over 1,000 personnel were working on extinguishing a fire that has proven to be difficult to contain due to terrain and weather conditions. The fire has cost $6.6 million to fight so far and is 20-percent contained as of Friday morning. Firefighters have come from all over the state to fight the blaze and are also supported by the Oregon National Guard, which deployed one HH-60M Black Hawk helicopter, one CH-47 Chinook helicopter and one UH-72 Lakota helicopter, and approximately 20 aviation support personnel to assist incident commanders with fire suppression efforts. Numerous hand crews, engines, tenders, brush trucks, bulldozers, helicopters, and air tankers are also on scene to help put out the flames.

The Hood River County Interface Task Force suited up and left for the fire Sunday morning after Gov. John Kitzhaber declared the blaze a state conflagration Saturday evening. Limited to three to five days on scene, Hood River Fire and EMS reported the task force returned mid-week.

A wind change on Wednesday helped pump smoke into the Hood River Valley, reducing air quality levels, blotting out the sun, and sprinkling the area with small bits of wildfire ash. The smoky conditions abated slightly on Thursday and westerly winds forecast for Friday were expected to help push the smoke back to the east. However, with gusts up to 30 mph, fire officials cautioned that “conditions will remain at critical levels, with potential for extreme fire behavior and rapid rates of spread” and will “challenge firefighters attempting to contain the blaze.”

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