Black Crater: Top Northwest Priority

Black Crater: Top Northwest Priority

28 July 2006

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The 2,000-acre Black Crater Fire threatening the Western-storefront town of Sisters has become the top firefighting priority in the Northwest, meaning more state and federal resources are joining firefighters struggling to halt the blaze’s advance. About 500 people were forced to quickly evacuate two areas west of town Thursday.

Hundreds of people, including evacuees from the Crossroads and Edgington areas, packed the Sisters High School cafeteria for an update Thursday night, hearing both good (a bit cooler temperatures) and bad (more gusty winds) news about the forecast for Friday.

The fire had doubled in size, to 800 acres Thursday morning – and then the wind picked up, fanning the flames toward the northeast. Spot fires played leapfrog, spreading the flames even farther – and by 3 p.m., the evacuation order went out.

“It’s about a mile from our house, so what do you take?” said Crossroads evacuee Lisa Woodworth. “Photographs, and whatever you can load in (the car). The kids stayed calm, the dog was frantic, and it’s scary.”

“All the firemen said was, ‘Leave all the doors open,’ and ‘You have to go now,'” she recalled at the Red Cross Shelter set up at Sisters High School.

Black clouds of smoke towered over small Western-style town of Sisters Thursday as 2,000-acre Black Crater Fire moved closer.

Amid the fear and uncertainty the fire has brought, Kevin Fossin of the Deschutes National Forest said all residents of the area need to keep their “heightened sense of awareness. Things may change – as this fire has shown us today, everything changes in about an hour.”

If the larger Tollgate area, or even residents of Sisters itself are evacuated, another shelter will be opened in Redmond, officials said.

The Black Crater Fire quickly exploded to 2,000 acres and surged to within five miles of Sisters Thursday, triggering evacuation of 200 homes in the Crossroads subdivision west of town and prompting a pre-evacuation alert for 1,500 residents in the adjacent Tollgate neighborhood.

The blaze also sent a stream of smoke into the Bend area Thursday afternoon and evening, turning much of the High Desert into a smoky fire zone.

The thick smoke also prevented fire bosses from putting air tankers or helicopters in the air for a time, after, four air tankers  bombarded the flames with retardant. Days of temperatures in the 90s, low humidity and now winds gusting to 20 mph set the scene for danger.

The fire that had been burning in the Three Sisters Wilderness Area of the Deschutes National Forest pushed across the first evacuation “trigger point,” the 1018 Road, onto private land. A helicopter dropped buckets of water onto the area, which has been logged, officials said.

Though the flames still were about five miles from the Western-style frontier tourism town of Sisters, it was a scary turn of events, hours after the flames sent a smoky pall streaming into town and points east, visible from Bend and across the region.

Gov. Ted Kulongoski invoked the Emergency Conflagration Act late Thursday afternoon to mobilize state resources to combat the blaze and protect structures.

Two National Guard helicopters, a water-dropping Blackhawk and a “Firehawk” that can drop retardant or water, were called in to assist starting Friday morning. The Guard also was expected to provide a “heavy” Chinook helicopter recently returned from Afghanistan.

State transportation officials urged motorists to stay off state Highway 242 (the Old McKenzie Highway) so evacuated residents could leave the area and meet at the high school. The road over the pass has been closed for several days.

The Redmond Humane Society coordinated evacuation and sheltering of animals at the Sisters Rodeo Grounds., should evacuation become necessary.

It was a frightening reminder for Sisters residents of the 90,000-acre B&B Complex Fire west of town in 2003, which shut down Highway 20 and decimated business in the city for weeks. But by day’s end, the much smaller (for ow) blaze topped the B&B, in one respect, raising fears that, in a worst-case scenario, the fire could advance into the town of Sisters itself.

Elsewhere, the Maxwell Fire, six miles southwest of Mitchell in the Ochoco National Forest, also exploded in size, burning an estimated 1,400 acres. The Elk Lake Fire was last reported at 70 acres, still forcing closure of the Cascade Lakes Highway but now at 20 percent containment.

And on the warm springs Reservation, the 1,200-acre Wolfe Point II Fire, nine miles northeast of Warm Springs, threatened residences in the Wolfe Point subdivision. The 700-plus acre Black Rock Fire, 20 miles northeast of Burns, was 55 percent contained.

By Barney Lerten, Kelsey Watts and Ryan


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