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From harvesting wheat to fighting fire, farmers at the frontlines of the Substation Fire

Pickup trucks pull up alongside a burning field Wednesday, July 18, 2018. People used hoses and shovels to help save property from the Substation Fire. (Photo: Chopper 2/KATU)

One after the other, pickup trucks armed with tanks of water pulled up alongside a burning field of grass and brush, and people pulled hoses from the back of the trucks and used them to douse the flames with water.

The lead truck moved down the dirt road with the person manning the hose still spraying the field. As it pulled away, it was immediately replaced by another one, and another person with a hose.

Men running alongside the trucks jumped into action with shovels, throwing dirt on the remaining flames not extinguished by the water.

It wasn’t clear from the live Chopper 2 video feed whether the people in the trucks were firefighters, homeowners, neighbors or all three. But it was clear that a battle raged below Wednesday afternoon to save a structure and property just across the road threatened by the Substation Fire, which has so far claimed one life, destroyed at least one home, and many outbuildings.

The Oregon state fire marshal said more than 900 homes were in Level 2 or Level 3 evacuation zones.

The fire started southeast of The Dalles Tuesday afternoon and then, whipped up by the wind, exploded, consuming more than 50,000 acres of wheat and grasslands by late Wednesday night.

About 178 firefighters from 32 agencies across Oregon have rushed to the fire to help contain it and put it out. Crews also deployed an attack from the air, using two “Super Scoopers” that dipped into the Columbia River to scoop up 12,000 gallons of water each to be dropped on the flames. Other aircraft, including two helicopters, two 750-gallon “Fire Bosses,” and a heavy retardant-dropping air tanker have also joined the fight.

For farmers, many have been forced to put aside their annual wheat harvest and instead turn their efforts to saving their homes and properties.

Dave Pinkerton is just one of the farmers around Wasco who dropped what they were doing to help in the firefighting effort.

“We actually harvested until the power got cut, and we couldn’t haul anymore wheat,” he said.

Then Pinkerton bolted to the fire’s frontlines, hoping to help stop it. He was successful in helping to save his cousin’s house from the encroaching flames.

“In the end, it’s their property, but we’re going to work with them to advise, so that they can be safe,” said Stefan Myers, with the Oregon State Fire Marshal’s Office. “We want everybody that’s in this community to know to please work with the firefighters and heed their instructions. It’s for their safety.”

For those who live in the danger zone, the threat of spreading flames is as worrisome as the evacuation warnings.

“What do I really need to get out of the house? That’s my concern,” said Jackie Miller. “What’s really important to me? Pretty much the animals, my mother, important papers, pictures that you can’t replace. Everything else can be replaced.”

Firefighters said they feel like they’re still going to be reacting to the fire activity over the next 12 hours, but they think they’ve protected most areas vulnerable to the spreading flames.

As for the people in the train of trucks hosing down the burning field, it appeared they were successful in putting out the fire along that dirt road, but not before the fire had successfully attacked one outbuilding, which from its roof erupted giant orange flames.

Highway 97 will be closed through at least Wednesday night between Interstate 84 and Highway 197 because of the fire.

Gov. Kate Brown and state fire officials are expected to give a briefing Thursday morning.

Residents displaced by the fire can find shelter at The Dalles Middle School at 1100 E. 12th Street in The Dalles. It has been set up by the Red Cross.

A hotline has been established for those needing fire information. That number is 503-597-8076.

EVACUATION NOTICES:

LEVEL 3:

Moro is under a Level 3 evacuation

A Level 3 evacuation was put in place for Eight Mile Road at Emerson Loop Road to Emerson Loop Road and Company Hollow Road, as well as all of Wrentham Market Road and Mason Road.

Deschutes River from Sheers Bridge to the mouth and Deschutes Park are at Level 3.

South of Gordon Ridge Rd from the Deschutes River, east to Hwy 97 and south to King Lane, South along Sayers Rd to Payne Loop is a Level 3.

LEVEL 2:

Grass Valley's Level 3 has been reduced to Level 2.

Wasco is at a Level 2 notice.

North of Gordon Ridge Rd to Interstate 84 and HWY 206, east to Hwy 97 and south along Henrichs, Doumand and Lone Rock Rd, and south to Rutledge Lane, as well as the area further south between Finnegan Rd to the Deschutes River is a Level 2.

LEVEL 1:

The area east of HWY 97 to Hwy 206, and south to Fairview Rd is a Level 1.

Steve Benham reported from Portland.

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