A blaze that scorched more than 1,000 acres west of Madras has been traced to an area resident's burn barrel from which flames escaped Monday afternoon, officials said late Tuesday, And now, firefighters are bracing for a threat of new blazes from thunderstorms.
Meanwhile, the National Weather Service has issued a "Red Flag Warning" for the period from 1 p.m. to 11 p.m. Wednesday "for thunderstorms producing abundant lightning" across Central and Eastern Oregon, bringing a serious threat of new wildfires at the height of fire season.
Lisa Clark of the Central Oregon Interagency Dispatch Center said firefighters would be pre-positioned around the area to respond to any new starts from the storms, while lookouts and reconnaissance planes will be up when the weather allows, watching for lightning strikes and new fires.
A spokesman for the Oregon state fire marshal said Tuesday evening that the Elk Fire had been contained, and the wind-driven fire's origin was traced to an area resident's burn barrel.
Firefighting task forces who arrived early Tuesday from Clackamas and Marion counties turned structural protection duties back over to Jefferson County firefighters at 8 p.m. Tuesday.
Clark said crews would continue to patrol and mop-up the fire Wednesday, looking for any remaining hot spots.
Dozens of structures threatened by the Elk Fire, including Greg McCool's mother's home, made it through Monday night. In fact, no homes were lost and no injuries reported.
"My mom told me to just tell everyone I see, 'Thank you, thank you, thank you,' because this was her home, and they saved it for her," McCool said Tuesday afternoon.
The damage done was clearly visible at the McCool family's property ,four miles west of Madras.
"The fire burned right up to the house, the carport, the machinery -- everything, it burned right up to it," said McCool.
Firefighters from agencies in Marion and Clackamas counties were called in under a state Conflagration Act invoked by Gov. John Kitzhaber to help local crews protect about two-dozen structures threatened by the fire.
The fire was staffed Tuesday with about 80 wildland firefighters, including two hotshot crews, a 20-person hand crew, five engines and a helicopter, as well as 44 structural firefighters.
An incident command post was set up at the Jefferson County Rural Fire District station in Madras.
As firefighters fought the flames from the ground, Monday afternoon, an airplane carrying fire retardant attacked it from above.
In one swoop, some of the McCools' possessions were given a fighting chance against wind-driven flames.
A trailer and pickup truck were covered in the thick red retardant, so they were saved.
It's the same "perfect storm" of wildfire conditions Central Oregonians have seen for weeks: high temperatures, high winds, low humidity and something, or someone, sparks disaster.
But Monday afternoon, quick action slowed the fast-moving flames, just enough to save homes and lives.
"If the air retardant plane had been ten minutes slower, it probably wouldn't be standing here to look at, we would be filming a burned down house," said Lt. Mark Corless from the Clackamas Fire Department.
Elsewhere, a growing team of firefighters reached 80 percent containment by Tuesday night of the 1,500-acre Free Bridge II fire, burning six miles south of the mouth of the Lower Deschutes River, where it flows into the Columbia. Clark said fire behavior was low Tuesday, growing by just three acres, and BLM firefighters were being helped by the Burlington Northern-Santa Fe Railway with fire suppression work in the remote canyon bottom.
All campgrounds along the river in that area remain open. The cause of the fire was under investigation, she said.
Another fire, Incident 430, has burned more than 1,300 acres about nine miles southeast of Arlington. Clark said it, too, had minimal activity Tuesday, as a rapid response from Gilliam County crews when it broke out Monday, followed by cool overnight temperatures, helped bring the fire under control quickly. The cause of the fire also was not known.
To the east, Burns Interagency Dispatch officials said Wednesday the Theimer 2 Fire 15 miles north of Burns was determined to be arson. They said a Boy Scout lodge in the area was saved fromthe flames, and that the fire has been contained and Highway 395 is open.