Archive for Sunday, July 28, 2002

Winds hamper firefighting efforts

July 28, 2002


— Gusty wind on Saturday stoked a 9,000-acre fire that threatened homes overlooking the Columbia River gorge, and more residents were urged to leave their homes.

A contingent of 125 Oregon National Guard troops arrived Saturday to join the 800 firefighters already at work protecting the city of about 12,000 residents on the Columbia River bluffs.

The blaze had grown by 3,000 acres during the night and was only 30 percent contained, fire officials said.

Wind that had hampered fire crews for several days continued to blow through the gorge at 20 to 25 mph Saturday, with gusts of up to 40 mph.

Residents of 20 more homes were urged to evacuate Saturday, bringing the total to close to 250, said Stan Hinatsu, spokesman at the fire command center. Two outbuildings burned during the night, but no homes were destroyed, he said. A few outbuildings also burned on Friday.

Fire crews struggled against the wind Saturday to contain the fire's northeast flank in steep, hard-to-reach terrain. An additional 400 homes could be threatened if the wind shifted, fire officials said.

Firefighters parked their red and yellow engines in driveways and prepared to fight house to house if the fire picked up.

"Winds in the gorge are the single most significant element. It's been a very dangerous fire," Hinatsu said. "Our focus is firefighter safety and defending structures."

Flames got to within a few feet of some hillside houses on Friday, and firefighters pried smoldering siding off one house to save the rest of the building.

City workers abandoned the water treatment plant, taking with them chlorine and other potentially dangerous materials. Backup pumps provided water service, but some 60 homes were without water Saturday, fire officials said.

A total of 14 major active fires, all started by lightning, had burned 258,000 acres in Oregon by Saturday, according to the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center. More than 10,000 firefighters battled the blazes.

Elsewhere, firefighters in California said the 63,000-acre fire threatening the nation's giant sequoia had gotten more manageable. The blaze was 30 percent contained Saturday morning.

Ironically, crews were unable to set backfires during the night to complete most of a fireline separating the blaze from 11 groves of the towering trees because it was too wet, said Jim Paxon, a spokesman for the firefighters. However, crews still faced windy weather during the day, he said.

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