Gov. Kitzhaber declares state of emergency in response to Ore. wildfires

Gov. Kitzhaber declares state of emergency in response to Ore. wildfires
A plane drops fire retardant on a wildfire in the Buzzard Complex in Eastern Oregon. (Photo: BLM)

PORTLAND, Ore. — Governor John Kitzhaber declared a state of emergency in Oregon to address wildfires burning across the state.

"Oregon is facing a severe fire season. Conditions are dry and new fires are starting daily," Governor Kitzhaber said on Wednesday. "This declaration gives the resources and tools we need to respond and protect people, property, and Oregon's natural areas. This crisis is a reminder that each of us has a responsibility to our state to prevent new wildfires."

The declaration allows the Oregon National Guard to mobilize resources to help the Department of Forestry and State Fire Marshal's Office. 

Buzzard Complex

Wednesday night, two fires in the Buzzard Complex merged together east of Burns, fire officials said. The lightning-caused fire, which has moved into Malheur County in Eastern Oregon, now covers about 180,000 acres, or 280 square miles. It's 20 percent contained.

So far, one barn was reported burned in the fire. Air tankers, helicopters and ground crews are battling the fire Thursday.

Waterman Complex

Meanwhile, a highway through the Ochoco Mountains of central Oregon remains closed by a wildfire, but the threat to about 10 scattered homes and ranches eased Wednesday.

Fire officials said the Bailey Butte fire — part of the Waterman Complex — had burned more than 2,000 acres west of Mitchell and was moving south into the Ochoco National Forest.

A stretch of U.S. Highway 26 remained closed west of Mitchell, but the evacuation notice for homes along West Branch Road was dropped to the lowest level.

Two other fires near Service Creek and Kimberly brought the Waterman Complex to more than 4,000 acres. The three fires started from lightning strikes on Friday and were burning in timber, grass and brush. They were expected to grow in the hot and windy weather.

Crews contain fire near Heppner

Elsewhere, a fire that started in a northeast Oregon field west of Heppner raced quickly across as much as 20,000 acres, or some 30 square miles, before firefighters from two counties got it stopped, the Morrow County sheriff's office said.

Undersheriff Steven Myren said no homes or other structures were lost Wednesday although he says the fire "did get uncomfortably close to some." Some power poles and phone lines were damaged.

Early estimates put the area burned at between 15,000 and 20,000 acres, Myren said.

The fire raced nearly five miles through standing wheat and other fuels.

The cause is under investigation.

Moccasin Hill Fire

A wildfire that broke out Sunday in an off-the-grid subdivision near the Klamath County community of Sprague River was more destructive than authorities initially believed.

After the fire ignited in the Moccasin Hill subdivision 4 miles south of Sprague River, officials reported six houses destroyed along with 14 outbuildings — barns, garages, shops and the like. But when fire managers toured the burn area Tuesday, spokeswoman Ashley Lertora said they found 17 residences and 16 outbuildings destroyed.

Two more destroyed outbuildings were found on Wednesday, bringing the total number of lost structures to 35.

The cause was under investigation.

Operations Chief Joe Hessel said crews have transitioned from catching and holding the fire to securing the fire.

Lertora said a containment line was around the 4-square-mile burn area, and crews were working toward its center, putting out hot spots.

Kim McIntyre, co-owner of Whistlers Trading Post in Sprague River, told the Herald and News newspaper that many of the people in Moccasin Hill live off the grid with no electricity or telephone.

Resident David Pool told the newspaper he left the cabin where he lives with his wife and young daughter when he saw the approaching flames were twice as tall as the trees they were burning. His wife and daughter were away. When he returned, the cabin and solar panels were destroyed.

"I could tell that if you would have stood there with a shovel and a hose, even with an airplane dumping water on you, you wouldn't have made it out of there," he said Tuesday. "There was so much fuel, so densely stacked up, I don't think it could have been stopped."