An Oregon State Police arson investigator was called in to help look for the cause of a dozen small, suspicious fires that broke out within 2 1/2 hours Tuesday afternoon on private forestland in the area of Masten Butte, near the Deschutes-Klamath County line.
Investigators on scene Wednesday found a 12th fire, which burned a total of about three acres combined and ranged from 1/10 of an acre to a little over an acre.
They were reported between 1:30 and 3:50 p.m. Tuesday in an area of sage and timber on private and state-protected forestland southwest of La Pine and east of Wickiup Reservoir, said Echo Murray, dispatch coordinator for the Crescent-based Walker Range Forest Protective Association.
"Today (Wednesday), it's about making sure fires are contained, identifying the origin areas within those fires, so we can methodically go through those areas and try to determine a cause," said Ben Duda with the Oregon Department of Forestry.
Officials on scene said the fires all burned within about a mile of each other, and the closest home was about a mile away.
The fires broke out on Cascade Timberlands property, two of them on land protected by Walker and the others on land protected by the Oregon Department of Forestry, Murray said.
“We haven’t had any lightning, so these are believed to be human-caused,” Murray said, adding that the fires were turning up “one right after another.”
MIke Carlson of Walker Range said the proximity to homes was a good thing, in a way.
"From a subdivision down the road here, this ridge is very viewable, he said near one of the still-burning fires. "A lot of people traveling out here can see the smoke, call Walker Range."
Crews from around Central Oregon came to assist, including the Deschutes National Forest out of Bend and ODF crews out of Sisters. Some crews were pulled off prescribed burns in the area to tackle the fire Tuesday, and a helicopter was involved in the effort on Wednesday, to make sure no other fires were in the vicinity.
By nightfall, Murray told NewsChannel 21 crews were heading off the lines and the "fires are looking really good at this point."
While no structures were threatened, the timing of the fires – so many in one area in a short time frame – prompted the arson investigator call-out.
“They came up in the hot part of the day, with wind on them causing a few problems,” she said. Crews were “just getting a handle on one and another would come up.”
Fortunately, Murray said, on late-season fires, temperatures – and fire behavior – begin to drop quickly as the day progresses.
The fires were encircled and declared under control Tuesday evening, but were still burning. Carlson said they likely would monitor and let them burn themselves out, which could take a couple of weeks.
ATV users and horseback riders use the trails regularly, but the answer to whether these fires were intentionally or accidentally set could take a while.
"It's things like this that damage the relationship between the land owner and the community so it's unfortunate," Duda said.