The 70,000-acre Substation fire, threatening 900 homes in Sherman County, became the top priority fire in the nation Thursday, an official said. The fire is 15 percent contained.
That designation, due to the amount of homes threatened, added 60 personnel to the fire from the Pacific Northwest Incident Management Team. They joined 217 firefighters from 73 fire agencies. Air support and dozers earlier joined in suppression efforts.
Level 3 evacuations, meaning “go now,” were in effect in Biggs Junction, Moro and Grass Valley. Level 2, meaning “get ready” to evacuate, was in effect in Wasco and Kent, said Stefan Meyers, a public information officer for the Oregon State Fire Marshal at a press briefing Thursday in Moro.
An ongoing criminal investigation is underway into the fire, which killed 64-year-old John Ruby Wednesday as he was using a tractor to create a fireline to protect a neighbor’s property.
The Wasco County Sheriff’s Office described the fire as “incendiary,” which is defined by firehouse.com as a deliberately ignited fire when the person knows the fire should not be ignited.
At a press briefing Thursday afternoon, Wasco County Sheriff Lane Magill would not provide further information, saying it would compromise the investigation.
The fire, started Tuesday south of the BPA Celilo Substation outside The Dalles, spread rapidly, spurred by high winds. It spread east and south through thousands of acres of wheat fields just beginning, or about to begin, harvesting a bumper crop. It quickly spread into Sherman County.
The fire was repeatedly dubbed a “monster” by commenters on social media who had witnessed its devastation. Many said they’d never seen one like it.
One home, belonging to Gary and Debbie VanOrman, was destroyed, and a number of outbuildings were also destroyed on Emerson Loop Road.
The reported size of the fire stayed at 50,000 acres all day Thursday. An official number hasn’t yet been determined accurately, said Mitch Ward, a public information officer with the Oregon State Fire Marshal.
On Thursday morning, the fire jumped the Deschutes River at the mouth of the Columbia River, and a level 3 evacuation was put in place for Biggs Junction. Level 3 means “go now.”
Ward said, “When they issued that Level 3, most businesses closed up and left, that is my understanding.”
Level 3 evacuation orders were issued Wednesday night for Moro and Grass Valley, and still remain in effect, but by Thursday morning, no structures were lost “that we’re aware of,” said Damon Simmons, public information officer for Oregon State Fire Marshal’s Office.
Highway 97 was closed for periods, as was Highway 206, but both are open now, said Ward. Highway 30 from Celilo to Biggs Junction remained closed Thursday night, he said.
Winds Wednesday night reached 35 mph gusts, Simmons said, and Thursday, firefighters faced gusts of 35-40 mph, fueling significant growth at the south end of the wildfire in wildland areas.
Thursday night, expectations were that humidity would decrease as heat increases.
“I’ve never seen a fire like this,” Magill said Thursday morning as he stood near the mouth of the Deschutes. He said it was blowing maybe 15-20 mph at the river, but was probably 45-50 mph at the higher elevations.
“The day it started, it burned 18 miles in eight hours,” he said.
Simmons said Thursday morning that fire crews would work on structure protection and getting ahead of the fire. They will drop retardant in front of the fire to slow its advance, cool it with water drops from helicopter and hand crews will remove fuel ahead of the fire.
There are also engines out working on structure protection.
They also have bulldozers available today to cut firelines “and get ahead of this hopefully.”
The fire pushed slightly toward Interstate 84, but it’s still some ways away. The fire is moving mostly toward the southeast, he said.
Damage assessment will be aided by the addition of new personnel Thursday, Ward said, but fighting the fire is a priority, Simmons said.
Simmons said the Red Cross shelter set up at The Dalles Middle School saw 15 people Wednesday, and two stayed overnight Wednesday night.
On Thursday, Wasco Electric Co-op crews along with seven additional crews continued work to replace 60-80 burnt poles in the Wrentham Market, Tygh Ridge and Fifteen mile area of Wasco County.
On Wednesday afternoon, a widespread outage affected Sherman County, but power was restored later that day, according to the Wasco Electric Co-op Facebook page.
Ward said offers of food for firefighters come in regularly. He said that though the crews are well taken care of, with caterers on contract, he said the offers of community support are appreciated.