PORTLAND, Ore. – When the smoke cleared from a new wildfire threatening the small Columbia River Gorge community of Rowena, area residents glimpsed an even less-welcome sight — a line of flames visible from the city of The Dalles, about six miles away.
After the fire made a run along the river Wednesday evening, residents of 275 homes in Rowena were told to evacuate, fire spokesman Dave Wells said.
Residents of nearly 90 homes in an outlying subdivision of The Dalles, a city of about 14,000, were told to be ready to leave if necessary, Wells said.
Firefighters planned to work through the night protecting structures.
No homes had burned as of Wednesday night, the spokesman said.
Five helicopters dropped water on the blaze Wednesday as winds gusted to more than 30 mph, fire spokesman Justin de Ruyter said.
A section of U.S. Highway 30 was closed in the area, but Interstate 84 remained open. Rowena is about 75 miles east of Portland.
The fire began in brush Tuesday night and quickly spread to about 200 acres of timber and scrub oak in rocky, steep terrain that is home to rattlesnakes, ticks and poison oak.
"We've got a challenging fire on our hands," de Ruyter said.
Gov. John Kitzhaber invoked the state's authority to mobilize local fire departments to protect buildings, and structural protection fire crews have come from three counties.
The governor also toured Oregon's biggest wildfire, the Oregon Gulch fire, which burned six homes last week in the Siskiyou Mountains along the California border about 15 miles east of Ashland. It was 37 percent contained at 57 square miles. While in fire camp, he called on Congress to pay for more forest-thinning projects to reduce the risk of wildfires.
"These fires are a symptom of a much larger forest health issue," he said. "We just have to begin to deal with the root causes. That means lending some urgency to improving the health and resiliency of our forests in a way that can produce jobs."
U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack this week said the U.S. Forest Service will soon have to start pulling funding from thinning projects and other programs to pay for the continued battle against wildfires.
In all, there are 10 large fires in Oregon, with nearly 4,000 people fighting them across 143 square miles of timber and rangeland. The cost to date exceeds $36.7 million.
The Northwest has been at Fire Preparedness Level 5 — the top level — since July 16, and the season still has a long way to go, said Tom Knappenberger, a spokesman at the federal interagency fire center in Portland.
— In Washington, fire spokesmen say a wildfire burning on the Colville Indian Reservation in the northeastern part of the state has scorched about 7,000 acres.
Residents of about 25 homes have been told to evacuate in the face of the Devil's Elbow Complex of three wildfires. Detected Sunday, those fires were likely ignited by lightning.
Fire spokeswoman Karen Ripley said late Wednesday that no homes have burned. About 210 firefighters are attacking the flames.
The Snag Canyon wildfire near Ellensburg in central Washington has grown to 6,400 acres and is being fought by about 450 firefighters.
The Washington Incident Management Team reports that fire was started by lightning on Saturday and is burning through grass, brush and timber about 12 miles northwest of Ellensburg. The fire has destroyed eight homes.
— In California, light rain and an infusion of personnel and equipment from as far away as San Diego allowed fire crews to continue gaining momentum Wednesday on a pair of wildfires that exploded over the weekend in northern California and have burned more than 110 square miles, officials said. The two fires burning about 7 miles apart in Shasta and Lassen counties were among nine major wildfires that erupted in a 24-hour period last week, most sparked by lightning.
Eight homes, a historic post office and a restaurant were lost in the smaller of the two fires that started in Lassen National Forest and threatened Burney, a town of about 3,000 people in Shasta County. An evacuation advisory for Burney was lifted on Tuesday.
The spread of the second blaze had also slowed enough that people living in its path were allowed to return home on Tuesday afternoon.
Barnard reported from Grants Pass, Oregon.