Firefighters gain ground on Oregon wildfire that threatened homes in Columbia River Gorge

Fire officials were upbeat Friday about their progress in fighting a wildfire in Oregon's wind-swept Columbia River Gorge that destroyed one home, damaged two others and threatened more than 700 residences.

Crews focused on burnout operations to deprive the fire of fuel and improve containment lines. Firefighters also worked to create more defensible space around homes in the small town of Rowena.

"We turned the corner today, and things are looking much better," Oregon Forestry Department Incident Commander John Buckman said.

Even the winds, which have gusted to 30 mph, were expected to die down.

The fire has burned across about 5 square miles since it started Tuesday. It's about 35 percent contained. The cause is still under investigation.

Residents of more than 140 homes were earlier told to evacuate, and nearly 600 households have been put on alert in the community near The Dalles. Many people were allowed to return home on Thursday.

The basalt walls of the gorge east of Portland funnel winds that draw windsurfers from afar, but what's good for recreation gives firefighters fits.

"You look in one direction, and there's a fire," fire spokesman Mike Waite said. "You look the other way, and there are people out there windsurfing."

Ken Wright, who helped his daughter, son-in-law and their baby and pets evacuate Wednesday, said the fire surrounded his daughter's house and four other homes. The family lives about half a mile from where the fire started and was one of the first seven homes evacuated.

"It was scary to watch your house almost burn up. It was pretty crazy," said Wright, who watched — from a safe distance — fire engines battling the blaze around his daughter's house. "It's amazing how those firefighters kept the houses from burning, with the fire going around them."

The family has been told not to return yet because the fire may go back through the area, Wright said.

At a briefing in The Dalles on Friday, Gov. John Kitzhaber issued a warning to Oregon residents.

"This is a very explosive fire season," he said. "We're having enough trouble with lightning-caused fires, so people should really be very intentional about using good fire-safety practices when they're in the woods recreating or using power tools."

Elsewhere in the West, three firefighters have been injured battling a wildfire burning on the Idaho side of the Snake River across from Oregon and Washington.

One firefighter received a gash on his leg from a chain saw and required stiches, fire spokeswoman Jill Cobb said. Another firefighter suffered heat-related problems, and a third sustained a scratched cornea.

The fire on Friday grew to 76 square miles and destroyed a sixth structure.

In central Washington state, firefighters late Friday used explosives to build a fire break on an inaccessible section of a fast-growing wildfire near Ellensburg that has grown to cover nearly 14 square miles. The lightning-caused fire is being fought by more than 700 people.

And a wildfire burning 10 miles north of Keller in northeast Washington was threatening nearly 150 homes and other structures. About 40 homes closest to the fire have been evacuated and others have been told to be ready to leave at a moment's notice.


Associated Press writers Donna Blankinship in Seattle and Keith Ridler in Boise, Idaho, contributed to this report.