Wildfires rage in SE Oregon: Frenchglen put on alert

Wildfires rage in SE Oregon: Frenchglen put on alert
Firefighters at the Miller Homestead Fire. (Photo courtesy John Britt/Inciweb)

PORTLAND, Ore. -  Wildfires in Eastern Oregon are growing and the hamlet Frenchglen in Harney County has been put on notice that residents may be advised to leave.

Firefighters faced triple digit temperatures and tinder-dry vegetation Wednesday as they battled to keep two rangeland blazes capable of hurling flaming debris aloft a 1/2 mile ahead of the fire from reaching homes and other buildings in southeastern Oregon.

Smoke from the Long Draw and Miller Homestead fires reached the Willamette Valley on Tuesday. The layer of haze drove air quality in Eugene down into the moderate range.

So far, smoke from the fires has not reached the Portland area, according to a NOAA map.

In sparsely populated southeastern Oregon, however, hundreds of firefighters faced temperatures over 100 degrees and single-digit humidity on two massive lightning-caused fires there.

As of Wednesday night, the Long Draw fire along Highway 95 north of the Nevada border had burned power lines and several remote ranch structures as it burned across 710 square miles of grass and sagebrush. That's more than 455,000 acres. The fire is about 30 percent contained.

The fire threatens about 300 structures, but no homes. Mike Stearly, spokesman for the fire management team, said about 350 firefighters are battling the blaze and more crews are on the way.

The fire has jumped the highway, causing intermittent traffic delays on Highway 95.

At times, the fire kicked up burning debris fire managers said was capable of starting new "spot fires" up to a 1/2 mile ahead of the blaze.

The fire continued to burn out of control Wednesday. Fire managers planned to reinforce fire lines on the flanks of the fire to hopefully stop the blaze in its tracks.

To the west of Steens Mountain, authorities have alerted residents of Frenchglen to prepare for an evacuation notice if conditions warrant. The nearby Miller Homestead fire has grown to an area of 82 square miles, or 45,000 acres. It's just 10 percent contained. It was threatening livestock and more than a dozen structures, including three residences.

"For me, it's not looking very good, to be honest with you," rancher Gary Miller said. "We're just trying to save our animals, or as many as we can."

Miller spoke by telephone from his pickup, which he said was surrounded by smoke and flames. Miller said he could not estimate how many cattle he has lost. "I've seen a couple wildfires before — none that was this devastating."

Frenchglen is about 60 miles south of Burns. It's unincorporated, and the immediate community has a couple businesses and about half a dozen homes. It's is best known as a jumping off spot for birdwatchers heading to the nearby wildlife refuge and campers going to Steens Mountain.

So far, firefighters have successfully protected homes from the flames. One long-abandoned structure was lost to the fire Tuesday afternoon, however.

Fire bosses have massed an army of firefighters to attack the blaze and protect homes from the air and from the ground, including four planes, a dozen fire engines and a helicopter.

Twyla Hoffman and John Ross, who work at the Frenchglen Hotel, said the sky is smoky, but they were not particularly concerned that the fire west of town would force them to evacuate. Hoffman said the hotel has had a few cancellations, but 21 guests were there Wednesday afternoon.

The Miller Homestead Fire was sparked by lightning on Sunday and has scorched sagebrush, juniper and grass. Firefighters have been challenged by the rocky terrain and erratic winds. Burnout operations have been limited by the presence of cattle.

"Everyone out here is making money on the fire, except for me," Miller said. "My livelihood is going up in smoke."

Miller's wife, Michelle, said she has seen flames for three consecutive nights and the smoke is solid. She noted that the ranch is not only losing cattle, but the grass needed to feed them.

"But it can always be worse," she said. "We've had a few life-threatening experiences with our children that kind of give us a different outlook. We can get through it; it will be OK. But it hurts."

State Highway 205 has closed at times due to the fire, as has Page Springs Campground.

Fish Lake and Jackman Park Campgrounds and the Steens Mountain Loop Road remain open.

Fire managers said visitors to Steens Mountain face no immediate danger from the fire.