THE DALLES — In what fire officials warn may be a prelude to the summer fire season, the Mile Post 85 fire Wednesday, June 2, closed Interstate 84 and forced the evacuation of nearby communities.
“We are experiencing an early start to the wildland fire season,” said Fire Chief Bob Palmer of Mid-Columbia Fire & Rescue. “Based on the rapid growth and intensity of this fire, the outlook for this summer is leaning towards a fairly active fire season. We ask that the public please be extremely careful around dry vegetation and be especially vigilant.”
Ignited just east of Pinewood Mobile Manor on Old Highway 30 west of The Dalles, the fire is estimated to have burned 170 acres and was 70 percent contained as of Friday, according to Palmer.
The fire spread rapidly, pushed by strong winds and burning in grass, brush and scattered timber. Initial damage assessment from the fire includes Bonneville Power Administration and Public Utility Department infrastructure, two road culverts, a water pump house at Pinewood Mobile Manor as well as fencing, shrubs and landscaping at both Google data centers, and the wooden bridge along riverfront trail near Home At Last animal shelter (HAL), Palmer said.
Interstate 84 was closed both directions as the fire jumped the highway, burning toward the Port of The Dalles.
Neighborhoods in the immediate vicinity of the fire were evacuated for much of the afternoon.
Among those evacuated was HAL on River Road, which was declared completely evacuated only six minutes after receiving the evacuation notice.
The evacuation, issued because of fire spotting in nearby Chenowith Creek, where a footbridge was damaged, was issued at 3:25 p.m. and the shelter was declared completely evacuated at 3:31 p.m., according to a timeline on the Columbia Gorge Wildland and Fire Information Facebook Page.
Steven Drynen, HAL chief executive officer, said shelter manager Brittany Hopkins orchestrated the speedy evacuation, assisted by “a bunch of volunteers.”
Around a dozen cats and kittens and 20 dogs were evacuated to Lana’s Kennels in The Dalles. Drynen said Cascade Pet Camp in Hood River also offered to house some of the animals, but couldn’t because the freeway was closed during the fire.
All the animals were returned to HAL the following morning.
“We’re so proud that everyone stepped up,” said Drynen, “(there were) so many people (to help) that they were turning them away at the checkpoint on River Road … we are full of gratitude for it.” Drynen said HAL wanted to thank the firefighters, as well as everyone who came to assist them in their sudden evacuation.
Firefighters from Mid-Columbia Fire and Rescue, Mosier Rural Fire District, West Side Fire Department, Klickitat County Fire Department, Parkdale Fire Department, Wy’East Fire District, Cascade Locks Fire and EMS, Hood River Fire Department, Oregon Department of Forestry and the U.S. Forest Service were able to stop the forward progress of the fire on the evening of June 2. The fire is now fully contained.
The cause of the fire is under investigation.
On Thursday, crews and engines from Mid-Columbia Fire and Rescue, Oregon Department of Forestry and the U.S. Forest Service continued to check for residual heat and extinguish them (mop-up operations) focusing on areas around the Pinewood Mobile Manner, Taylor Lake and Chenoweth Creek. Fire officials anticipated having the fire at full containment within a few days.
The Wasco County Sheriff’s Office originally issued a Level 3 Evacuation (GO!) in the immediate area then reduced it to a Level 1 Evacuation (Get Ready!) in the evening. All evacuation levels were dropped.
Burn bans are already in effect for all counties in the Gorge, as of June 1, which is a month earlier then normal. July 1 is when such bans are typically put into place.
Extreme fire conditions
On June 5, due to extreme fire conditions, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has banned activities likely to start a fire on national wildlife refuges in the Mid-Columbia River Fire Zone. This ban took effect June 5 and remains in effect until midnight, Sept. 30.
Included in the order are the Hanford Reach National Monument and Columbia, Cold Springs, Conboy Lake, McKay Creek, McNary, Toppenish and Umatilla National Wildlife Refuges. Use of any fire, including the use of charcoal briquettes and cooking stoves, is prohibited.
Also banned are smoking outside of an enclosed vehicle and operation of any motor without an approved and working spark arrester. Fireworks and campfires are banned year-round.
This ban comes almost a month earlier than normal due the drought impacting Oregon and Washington.
With the exception of Conboy Lake, all of the refuges mentioned are already in severe to extreme drought. Wildlife Service is asking for the public to take extra vigilance in preventing fires.
“The fire season is a full month ahead of where we would normally be,” said Service Fire Management Officer John Janak. “The severe drought conditions have us very worried about catastrophic fires this summer and fall.”
Wildlife Service urges the public to be especially careful when parking along roadsides with tall grass.
Many large fires on refuge lands are started by vehicles pulling to the side of the road, Wildlife Service noted. Dried grass, wheat stubble and weeds can come into contact with the vehicle's exhaust system, creating sparks. Dragging metal tow chains are also a hazard, according to forestry officials.