WARM SPRINGS, Ore. - (Update: Fire at 2,400 acres, 35 pct. contained; another small fire, more lightning)
The fire that broke out Sunday evening on the hill behind the Indian Head Casino on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation grew to about 2,400 acres by late Monday, due primarily to crews’ burnout operations that also moved it to 35 percent containment, officials said.
While initial indications were that the Mecca Fire began when a transformer blew, Public Information Officer Bob Sjolund said Monday that had not been confirmed. About 110 firefighters were working on the blaze Monday.
Another fire broke out Monday in a previously burned area at Sawmill Butte. It was reported to be about eight acres early Monday evening and 10 percent contained by about 45 firefighters.
Crews also were out looking into two other reported lightning strikes in the area as new storms brought more risk, but also some scattered rain and hail.
A nine-mile stretch of U.S. Highway 26 on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation was closed for a time, then reopened Sunday night due to the wind-driven wildfire that raced up a hill behind the Indian Head Casino and quickly spread.
About 50 to 60 firefighters were on the blaze overnight.
Officials also said much of the fire's growth was in burnout (also called back-burn) operations, designed to rob the fire of fuel and protect booth structures and firefighters.
"The winds coming up the river are shifting over the canyon, so we're being cautious with our burnout operations," fuel planner, Bob Sjoulund told NewsChannel 21 at the scene early Monday. "We're fighting fire with fire."
Initially, the fire was reported to be several acres and moving uphill, with four engine crews fighting it and more resources called in, including outside crews, according to Warm Springs Fire Management Assistant Fire Management Officer William Wilson.
Wilson said the fire was pushed by variable winds from a thunderstorm cell dropping lightning on western and northern portions of the reservation. A wind shift could push the fire toward the Deschutes River Monday morning, Wilson said on his wildfire watch Facebook page.
The fire was burning after nightfall close to the KWSO studios, and the station's Sue Matters posted a dramatic live video on its Facebook page, reporting "it's burning all around us." But with 30 to 40 feet of gravel for defensible space, they were in good shape and being protected.
KWSO reported Highway 26 was closed Sunday evening from the Rainbow Market to Sidwalter Flat, while tribal Highway 3 was closed from the Highway 26 intersection at Upper Dry Creek to Sunnyside.
A backfire was set from the studio parking lot Sunday night to stop the fire's advance toward the fire management office to the industrial area.
Wilson explained, "It's one of these range fires where large-scale burning operations will commence, rather than risk lives of the firefighters." As a result, he said, the fire could grow to 3,000 to 3,500 acres when burnout work is completed.
While Highway 26 was closed for a time, Wilson said later there were pilot-car escorts in place,and ODOT's TripCheck page later confirmed that "traffic control is in place." The highway fully reopened overnight.
No evacuations were ordered, but Wilson said that’s a possibility, with some homes threatened and structure protection crews in place.
Residents were asked to stay off the roads to allow firefighters to move safely as winds picked up late Sunday night. KWSO said the fire was moving toward Lower Dry creek early Monday.
You can check the latest ODOT updates at our TripCheck page.