Forecasters warn thunderstorms could spark new fires

Forecasters warn thunderstorms could spark new fires
A sign thanking firefighters posted in Burns, Ore. (Photo courtesy Rick Roy/Inciweb)

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Good weekend weather helped firefighters get the upper hand on large blazes in southeastern Oregon, but forecasters warned Monday that thunderstorms could spark a new round of wildfires this week.

The National Weather Service in Pendleton said thunderstorms are expected to produce lightning through Thursday. The Weather Service issued a red-flag warning for northeastern Oregon and southeastern Washington, saying a combination of strong winds, low relative humidity and warm temperatures "will create explosive fire growth potential."

Firefighters took advantage of lower temperatures and higher humidity over the weekend to fully contain the Long Draw Fire in southeastern Oregon, which has scorched more than 900 square miles, roughly twice the size of Multnomah County. It's Oregon's largest fire since the 1800s after surpassing the infamous Biscuit Fire of 2002 last week.

Another blaze south of Burns was 70 percent contained, and a handful of evacuated residents were allowed to return and assess the damage to their property. The fire had threatened a handful of homes around Harney Lake, and about a dozen residents were told to be ready to flee the unincorporated hamlet of Frenchglen, but officials said Monday the danger had eased.

The Miller Homestead Fire had charred about 250 square miles.

Rancher Gary Miller, who lives near Frenchglen, said he'd lost about 45 of his 300 cattle in the blaze, and the number was still rising as he located more animals that were injured and needed to be euthanized. Much of his grazing land was charred, he said.

"It's a huge impact, like any disaster," he said. "It's our livelihood. And the damages are hard to assess, truthfully, because we're going to be living with this for months, if not years."

Several neighbors had stepped up to help while he figures out what to do next, he said. Miller is grazing some of his surviving cattle on a neighbor's land, and another has offered him 100 tons of hay, he said.

Meanwhile, crews at the Long Draw Fire were patrolling containment lines and trying to protect large unburned patches inside the fire's perimeter, said Trish Hogervorst, a fire information officer. Some firefighters were being sent home or to other blazes.

"There might be some islands burning in the middle, but there's a good solid line around the outside that's cold," Hogervorst said.

Fire crews benefited from better-than-expected weekend weather, she said. Temperatures were lower and humidity higher.

Two smaller fires burning near Westfall, west of Ontario, have scorched nearly 30 square miles between them. They were 85 percent contained on Monday.

Firefighters had to stop fighting the blazes for a while over the weekend when lightning knocked out communications. Tornadoes also were spotted in the area, but no one was injured.