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How wildfire sent Oregon’s eclipse plans up in flames

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 8/11/2017 Zach Urness
The Whitewater Fire on Aug. 2. © Marcus Kauffman / Special to the Statesman Journal The Whitewater Fire on Aug. 2.

SALEM, Ore. — On the evening of June 26, a thunderstorm rolled across the Central Cascade Range and raked the forest with more than 100 lightning strikes.

The storm would spark 12 different wildfires in Willamette National Forest, but because conditions were still wet, the blazes remained small and were quickly doused.

But it was a lightning strike that wasn’t detected, that sat smoldering in a tree for almost a month, that would spark Oregon’s most significant wildfire of the summer so far.

The Whitewater Fire, now 9 square miles in the Mount Jefferson Wilderness, blanketed the Willamette Valley with smoke, threatened two small communities and ruined the eclipse plans of people around the globe.

Prior to the fire, the area surrounding 10,495-foot Mount Jefferson was expected to draw tens of thousands of people for the total solar eclipse Aug. 21.

Now places such as Jefferson Park — a back-country meadow considered the ideal eclipse-watching destination — will be closed as flames blacken one of the most beloved hiking and backpacking spots in Oregon.

All totaled, 117,000-acres and almost 30 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail are closed to the public through eclipse day and beyond.

The fire likely won’t be extinguished until winter rains arrive, fire officials said.

“We understand how disappointed people are,” Willamette National Forest Supervisor Tracy Beck said. “We threw everything we had at this fire when it started. But you can’t get them all.”

Smoldering tree undetected

It’s fairly common for lightning to ignite a wildfire long after the actual strike.

When lightning storms come through with rain, some fires pop up immediately while others smolder in what are known as strike trees — trees hit by lightning.

As the forest dries from the storm, the spark can remain for weeks and even months before the tree falls down.

In July 2015, a weeks-old lightning strike ignited a fire along the shoreline of Marion Lake, also in the Jefferson Wilderness, on a blue-sky day. The column of smoke came as a shock to the handful of swimmers at the lake that day.

The same thing appears to have occurred with the Whitewater Fire.

One of the lighting strikes from the June 26 storm hit a tree near the top of Sentinel Hills, about 100 yards off Whitewater Trail, a popular pathway to Jefferson Park. 

Nobody was aware of the strike tree or smoldering spark, multiple Forest Service officials said. The agency does aerial patrols after lightning storms, but holdovers from previous strikes tend to pop up without warning. 

“We can’t check every tree in the forest,” Beck said.

In any case, the lightning-struck tree eventually fell into a pile of dry brush and timber, igniting flames and sending up a smoke column spotted July 23. 

“As soon as it was spotted, we hit it with everything we had,” Beck said. “We used heavy helicopters, chainsaws, water pumps and engaged the fire directly. Our firefighters did everything they could to catch the fire before it spread.”

Blaze spills over a cliff

By the evening of July 24, officials knew the fire wouldn't go quietly. 

High winds threw embers half a mile, starting spot fires in a forest that was bone dry. The fire grew from 50 to 80 acres, crossing the Whitewater Trail and threatening popular Jefferson Park, where backpackers remained. 

But firefighters, who hiked 4 miles into the wilderness amid boiling temperatures, made progress on the fire. They built hand lines and kept the blaze limited to 80 acres by July 27. 

The problem was the terrain.

Sentinel Hills, where the fire started, sits atop steep cliffs. Late that week, winds kicked up and the fire spilled downhill, with flaming trees and boulders crashing into the Whitewater Creek valley. The fire roared down the cliffs and then burned back up it. 

Hot shot crews analyzed stopping the fire as it spread downhill, but the danger was too high. 

“Once it spilled over the cliff, there was really no way of stopping it without a high risk of injury or death to the firefighters,” Beck said.

Search and Rescue teams were sent to evacuate backpackers from Jefferson Park as the fire spread to 167 acres July 30.

"You could feel the heat coming off the fire and see ash all over the snowfields at Jefferson Park — it looked like someone took a pepper shaker onto Mount Jefferson," said Jeremy Mitchell, a volunteer search and rescue team member. "We probably evacuated 25 people. I was surprised how many people were still there." 

The next day, Jefferson Park and all surrounding trails were officially closed. 

"That ended up being a really good call," Mitchell said. 

Wind and heat fuel flames

At the same time the fire was spreading, weather conditions went from bad to catastrophic. 

The fire stayed around 167 acres for two days before growing to around 297 acres. 

Then it blew up.

Fueled by high winds and temperatures in the 100s, the fire expanded fivefold to 1,500 acres and then to 4,579 acres by Aug. 3.

Smoke and ash rained down on nearby Detroit. 

“Record-setting heat, rugged terrain and top of the fire season — it doesn’t get any worse,” said Steve Zeil, fire behavior analyst for the incident team during a meeting in Detroit. “All the ingredients for extreme fire behavior (were) present.”

Going forward

The fire has slowed its spread in recent days, growing a limited amount as weather conditions improved. 

Fire teams are now taking a more proactive approach, using controlled fire on containment lines to starve the blaze of the fuel it would need to grow. 

With rain in the forecast, there's hope fire activity will tamp down enough to stop smoke from obscuring the sky during eclipse day. 

Still, no matter how much the fire improves, Forest Service officials aren't considering re-opening Jefferson Park for the big day. 

"One little rainstorm might slow it down, but it will still be a large, active fire that has behaved erratically this entire time," McMahan said. "I couldn't sleep at night knowing there were a hundred or a thousand people near a fire that with one strong gust of wind could turn things sideways in a moment." 

 

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