Firefighters brace for lightning across Northwest


Firefighters battling 26 large fires across Oregon, Washington and Idaho braced Monday for dozens more as another round of lightning storms crosses the Northwest this week.

The Northwest Interagency Coordination Center in Portland reports that intense lightning was expected Monday from the coast, across the Cascades and into Idaho. The storms start out mostly as dry lightning, and by Wednesday or Thursday should have some rain with them.

“We’re in for it, I think,” center spokeswoman Carol Connolly said.

Red flag warnings for hot weather and lightning stretched from Northern California, across Oregon and Washington state, into Idaho and western Montana.

By midmorning Monday, there had already been 1,600 lightning strikes, most of them in south-central Oregon on the eastern side of the Cascades. In Oregon’s central Cascades, crews chased after three dozen new fires started by lightning in the Willamette National Forest. With hot dry weather raising fire danger to a new high, the Washington Department of Natural Resources banned all outdoor burning on state-protected lands, including campfires and charcoal in campgrounds.

Computer models suggest 15 to 25 new fires could start, particularly in and around the Cascades, the center reported.

Incident commanders at existing fires designated crews to be ready to attack the new fires as they erupt, Connolly said.

Dozens of lightning fires have been burning across the Northwest for the past month and threaten more than 2,500 rural homes, but firefighters were making progress against most of them.

The Carlton Complex in north-central Washington state, which burned across more than 400 square miles and destroyed more than 300 homes since it was ignited by lightning nearly a month ago, is 92 percent contained. Full containment is expected Friday. In Oregon, the Rowena fire, which burned one house and 5.7 square miles of scrub oak and brush on the steep, windy slopes of the Columbia Gorge west of The Dalles, was 65 percent contained. In Idaho, the Big Cougar fire was 50 percent contained after burning more than 100 square miles in remote country along the Snake River.

In some areas, smoke, not flames, created problems. In Oregon, the air quality index was unhealthy in Grants Pass in the southwestern corner of the state, and in Enterprise in the northeastern corner. In Washington, Pullman and Leavenworth reported unhealthy conditions. And in Idaho, state air quality authorities reported concerns for the Clearwater Basin from local fires, and the Panhandle from smoke blowing in from elsewhere.

In Oregon on Sunday, a wildfire trapped 19 hikers for a time at Saddle Mountain State Park near Seaside.

KPTV reported that the Coast Guard sent a helicopter to assess the situation and plans were being made for an airlift. But rescuers on the ground were able to escort the hikers safely out of the area.

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