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140 wildfires ignited across Oregon thanks to lightning strikes

by Zach Urness, Salem Statesman-Journal |

Thousands of lightning strikes raked across Oregon Thursday and Thursday night, resulting in at least 140 wildfires statewide.

Most of the wildfires are small — little more than an acre in most cases — but the sheer number and remote locations could prove challenging. 

The largest of the group is the Gopher Fire, which ignited late Thursday and grew to 200 acres by Friday afternoon. It's burning in the Sky Lakes Wilderness in southern Oregon south of Crater Lake. 

Multiple helicopters and air tankers are working to slow the fire's progression, but officials suggested avoiding trails on the wilderness' west side near Alta Lake. 

The fires may end up being short-lived, with rain in the forecast for much of the state. 

"Fire managers are optimistic that cooler weather with higher relative humidities will provide for an opportunity to make good progress on containment efforts," fire managers with Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest said in a news release.

Closer to Salem, Willamette National Forest, just east of Salem, reported 49 new wildfires by Thursday night.

With just a few exceptions, all wildfires are being targeted to be put out, according to reports from multiple agencies statewide.

>> Willamette National Forest 
Approximately 49 new lightning-caused fires were reported as of Friday morning in the vast national forest east of Salem and Eugene.

All new fires are located on the southern half of the Willamette, except for one located on the Santiam River Zone near Detroit and Sweet Home. 

The largest fire is 2 acres and located on the McKenzie River Ranger District.

“We expect to receive additional reports of new fires from recent thunderstorms today," Willamette spokeswoman Jen Valez said. "Initial attack on confirmed fires will continue utilizing a variety of firefighting resources including hand crews, engines and aircraft.

"Rain forecast for Sunday should help firefighters in their efforts to suppress these new fires.”

Visitors to the forest are encouraged to report any signs of smoke to the nearest Ranger District or 911.

>> Central Oregon
Fire teams responded to 45 new wildfires since Thursday morning.

"Through quick response and suppression efforts, firefighters have kept all but one of the new fire starts at less than an acre," a news release said. 

The Glass Buttes Fire, a grass fire 85 miles east of Bend on Prineville BLM, is estimated at 30 acres.

One of the new fires on the Bend-Fort Rock Ranger District will be allowed to burn. It is currently a half-acre and burning in a 33-acre kipuka (a forested area completely surrounded by lava flows), officials said. 

"Fire managers have assessed the burn potential and the risk to public and firefighter safety in suppressing this fire, and have determined that the best course of action is to monitor and confine the fire within the boundary of the lava flows," a news release said. 

>> Douglas County

The Douglas Forest Protective Association is tracking at least seven fires as of Friday morning.

The largest, the Big Tom Folley Fire, is burning 5 miles northeast of Elkton and is estimated to be about 3 acres.

The others are all less than an acre in size.

>> Umpqua National Forest 

The southern Oregon national forest, located east of Roseburg, reported 14 wildfires.

“All fires are less than an acre, and a few received precipitation,” officials said Thursday night. “Some of our firefighters will ‘spike out’ tonight near their fires that were a long hike in. Fortunately lightning is not forecast for tomorrow, however we expect a few more fires to pop up as Friday brings us warmer and drier weather.”

Crews extinguished 26 of the 46 and are still actively working on three while six are being mopped up. The remainder were unable to be located or on lands not protected by ODF. Crews still responded until the appropriate agency could arrive to take over.

The largest is the Bunker Creek Fire, estimated to cover 20 acres, in northwest Josephine County.

In Jackson County, the majority of fires are reported on the east side, ranging from the California-Oregon border to Grizzly Peak and Butte Falls. In Josephine County, fires range from the Applegate Valley to Deer Creek, Sexton Mountain and Wolf Creek.

>> Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest 

The national forest that spreads across southern Oregon to the California border had 18 confirmed starts, most of which are less than a half-acre in size.

The largest of the group is the 200-acre Gopher Fire, located in the Sky Lakes Wilderness. The fire grew from five smaller lightning-sparked fires that combined.

The fire is burning in the scar of the 2008 Middle Fork Fire.

At this time, the fire is burning in terrain very steep terrain – 30- to 45-percent grades – and the fuels are comprised entirely of large dead snags, grass and brush.

Those wishing to access the Sky Lakes in the near future are encouraged to access from the East side to avoid fire traffic on access roads to the Wilderness Area.