Firefighters save homes from Rowena wildfire; some residents return

ROWENA, Ore. Some of the hundreds of people forced to flee a wind-driven wildfire in Oregon's Columbia Gorge east of Portland were allowed to return Thursday and were happy to find their houses intact, even where flames had come as close as 30 feet.

"It is a huge relief," said Connie Thomasian, a real estate agent who moved to the little community of Rowena overlooking the Columbia River with her husband, Craig, for the world-class wind surfing. "We still have our house. It's a relief that everybody in our neighborhood has their house."

The Rowena fire started Tuesday evening in brush, and by Thursday, had grown to 2,645 acres northwest of The Dalles. The cause of the fire about 75 miles east of Portland remains under investigation.

It is zero percent contained, according to the Oregon state fire marshal and the Oregon Department of Forestry and just over 430 firefighters are battling the blaze at a cost of $937,000.

Afternoon winds Thursday whipped up the fire around Foley Lakes Reservoir on the northeastern outskirts of The Dalles, prompting the addition of The Dalles Country Club to the evacuation area, fire spokeswoman Tina O'Donnell said.

Thomasian and her husband watched from a nearby park Wednesday with neighbors as helicopters dropped water around the house and firefighters put out hot spots on the steep hillside. At one point, there was "a burst of flame" and it looked like the battle had been lost, she said on Thursday.

"It was frightful," she said. "I just disconnected myself from it, and thought, 'I'm putting this in the hands of the firefighters and luck."

Returning to the house Thursday, she found a charred softball, but the ranch house and a storage shed were untouched. Trees and grass were blackened within 30 feet of the house.

Old Highway 30 remained closed in the fire area between Rowena and The Dalles Country Club. But Interstate 84 remained open.

Gov. John Kitzhaber invoked the state's authority to mobilize local fire departments to protect buildings, and structural protection fire crews have come from three counties.

The governor also toured Oregon's biggest wildfire, the Oregon Gulch fire, which burned six homes last week in the Siskiyou Mountains along the California border about 15 miles east of Ashland. It was 37 percent contained at 57 square miles. While in fire camp, he called on Congress to pay for more forest-thinning projects to reduce the risk of wildfires.

"These fires are a symptom of a much larger forest health issue," he said. "We just have to begin to deal with the root causes. That means lending some urgency to improving the health and resiliency of our forests in a way that can produce jobs.

"It's up to the United States Congress to put resources into the (forest health issue) so that we can clean up these forests and reduce this fire risk."

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack this week said the U.S. Forest Service will soon have to start pulling funding from thinning projects and other programs to pay for the continued battle against wildfires.

Congress is divided over how to move forward on the issue.

In all, there are 10 large fires in Oregon, with nearly 4,000 people fighting them across 143 square miles of timber and rangeland. The cost to date exceeds $36.7 million.

The Northwest has been at Fire Preparedness Level 5 the top level since July 16, and the season still has a long way to go, said Tom Knappenberger, a spokesman at the federal interagency fire center in Portland.

"It's just an indicator of how bad this fire season is, and it's only Aug. 6," he said. "It's just amazing."