Helicopters, chain saws OK’d for Oregon wilderness fires

GRANTS PASS, Ore. — Firefighters got permission Tuesday to use helicopters and chain saws to battle a bunch of small wildfires in a wilderness area along the Oregon-California border.

Federally designated wilderness areas are generally off limits to mechanized equipment such as ATVs and mountain bikes, but that restriction can be lifted by regional foresters.

Under less volatile conditions, firefighters would use hand saws rather than chain saws, and no helicopters would be used.

Crews wasted no time in taking advantage of the permission. U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Virginia Gibbons said five, 20-person hand crews were joined by smokejumpers and a crew rappelling from a helicopter to fight six fires ignited by lightning two days ago in Red Buttes Wilderness on the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest.

The six fires covered a total of 15 acres. More resources were being readied.

“This is all based on the fact that everything is so dry and there’s been no rain and it’s just the prudent thing to do,” Forest Service spokesman Joe Walsh said from Washington, D.C. “It’s not a new rule or anything. They have the ability to do this in an effort to keep fire costs down, rather than letting something in a wilderness get out of control and then get out of the wilderness.”

In south-central Oregon, a lightning-sparked wildfire about 20 miles southwest of Lakeview has grown dramatically, burning across about 1,500 acres or more than two square miles. The Barry Point Fire is burning in the Fremont-Winema National Forest and private lands.

Forest Supervisor Fred Way says the fire is a holdover from Sunday’s lightning storm. It grew quickly late Monday and Tuesday, aided by high temperatures, low humidity and lots of fuel.

Meanwhile, in Central Oregon, firefighters thwarted a fast-moving fire and protected a subdivision of weekend getaway homes. An evacuation notice was lifted Monday night in the Three Rivers development about 15 miles northeast of Sisters.

About 100 homes were threatened. But because it was a weekday night, only about 15 people were in the subdivision, said Lisa Clark, a spokeswoman for agency firefighters.

She said firefighters did a “burnout operation” by lighting a fire along a road that denied the wildfire the fuel it might have used to get across the road and into the subdivision.

In 2002, wildfire burned 18 homes in the subdivision.

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