Lightning to blame for fires choking Oregon with smoke

Fire personnel confer under a billowing column of smoke from the Jones Fire. (InciWeb)

EUGENE, Ore. - You need only step outside to know it's smoky in Western Oregon.

So where's the fire?

It might be easier to account for what is NOT on fire.

The historic McKenzie Pass Highway 242 is closed due to the Milli Fire.

The Umpqua North Fires have kept a stretch of Highway 138E closed for weeks.

All told, firefighters are working to control 13 large fires or fire complexes in Oregon.

A complex is an administrative term for a group of smaller fires managed under a unified command.

From a 1/4 acre to 117,669 acres

The largest is the Chetco Bar Fire, a more than 100,000 acre fire that has destroyed homes and prompted evacuations in Curry County on the southern Oregon Coast.

The Chetco Bar Fire was first detected July 12, the result of a lightning strike. At the time, it was a quarter acre burning in the scar of the 2002 Biscuit Fire - that's 10,890 square feet, about the area of a good-sized lot in a nicer Eugene neighborhood.

For weeks, the fire burned in relative obscurity - at least from the public's point of view - as firefighters worked to find ways to access the blaze.

By July 20, the fire had burned about 300 acres. The fire had burned 500 acres a day later.

By the end of July, the fire had burned 2,900 acres

What a difference 4 weeks can make.

As of August 28, the fire had burned 117,669; destroyed at least 7 homes; and forced thousands of people to either flee their homes or prepare to evacuate.

The fire saw explosive growth in the second half of August.

Daily updates from fire managers illustrate the sudden and dramatic growth:

  • August 14: Estimated at 5,442 acres
  • August 15: Estimated at 5,442 acres
  • August 16: Estimated at 6,016 acres
  • August 17: Estimated at 6,500 acres
  • August 18: estimated at 10,963 acres
  • August 19: Estimated at 22,042 acres
  • August 20: Estimated at 31,00 acres
  • August 21: Estimated at 91,551 acres; evacuation notices issued.

A week later, the fire has burned nearly 118,000 acres and put everyone in the area - including the residents of the City of Brookings - under some form of evacuation notice.

Containment is estimated at zero percent.

To date, the fire has cost an estimated $16.3 million to fight.

There is no estimated date for containment, a sign that fall rain can't come soon enough.

That's the case on most of the other fires burning in Oregon. With the exception of blazes still under investigation, the fires all resulted from lightning.

Other Fires in Oregon

Whitewater Fire

A commercial jet spotted smoke from the Whitewater Fire in the Mount Jefferson Wilderness July 23. Fire managers believe a lightning strike in June smoldered in obscurity before the right combination of hot, dry, windy weather fanned the flames. The fire has burned over 10,000 acres as of late August. Firfighters don't expect the fire to be contained until the end of October.

Jones Fire

The Jones Fire has cut off access to campgrounds and recreation along Fall Creek. Smoke from the fire 10 miles northeast of Lowell has been visible at times from Eugene/Springfield. The fire resulted from lightning August 10. To date, it's burned nearly 6,000 acres and is 30 percent contained. Full containment is anticipated September 30. Estimated cost to fight through August 28: $8.7 million.

Rebel Fire

The cause of the Rebel Fire burning along the South Fork of the McKenzie River is not known. The fire was reported August 4. It has burned over 3,000 acres and is 17 percent contained. Full containment anticipated by the end of September. Cost to fight: $3.6 million as of August 28.

Horse Creek Complex

This complex includes the Avenue, Olallie, Lookout, Separation, Roney and Nash fires burning south of Highway 242 and east of Cougar Reservoir. The fires have burned 1,343 acres, the result of lightning August 10. Containment isn't anticipated until September 20. Cost to fight: $1.6 million as of August 28.

Staley Fire

A lightning strike August 9 sparked the Staley Fire south of Oakridge. The fire has burned 1,272 acres and is 44 percent. Full containment is projected for September 15. Cost to fight: $4.4 million as of August 28.

Milli Fire

Lightning sparked the Milli Fire on or about August 11. The fire has burned over 18,000 acres and subjected rural residents outside Sisters to evacuation notices. The fire is 32 percent contained. Full containment is anticipated by October 1. Cost: $12.1 million as of August 28.

Umpqua North Complex

The result of widespread lightning August 9, the largest of the fires in the Umpqua North Complex - the 12,000-acre Happy Dog/Ragged Ridge Fire - forced the closure of Highway 138E and the evacuation of the Dry Creek area. All told, the fires have burned more than 18,000 acres and are 7 percent contained. Full containment anticipated September 30. Cost: $13.4 million as of August 28.

Falcon Complex

This group of fires resulted from one of the lightning storms that hit the Umpqua National Forest hard in early August. The fires have burned 2,761 acres and are 35 percent contained. Full containment is estimated for mid-September. Cost to fight through August 28: $10.6 million.

High Cascades Complex

This unit includes 20 lightning-caused fires burning in or around Crater Lake National Park. The fires broked out July 26. To date, they've burned over 16,000 acres and are 44 percent contained. Full containment is projected for October 15. Cost to fight: $34.5 million as of August 28.

Horse Prairie Fire

The cause of the Horse Prairie Fire located this past weekend is under investigation. The fire has burned 750 acres as of Monday.

Indian Creek Fire

This fire has been burning since July 4 in the Eagle Creek area, north of Mount Hood. The cause is unknown. At 335 acres, the fire is 10 percent contained.

North Pelican

Lightning started this fire north of Klamath Falls on August 10. It has burned 1,525 acres and is 18 percent contained.

Miller Complex

This cluster of fires on the Oregon/California border started with lightning August 14. To date, they've burned 9,620 acres. Containment is estimated at 48 percent.

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