Pole Creek Fire still zero-percent contained

Size still reported at 4,300 acres, pushing into wilderness

POSTED: 12:12 PM PDT September 9, 2012    UPDATED: 5:35 PM PDT August 19, 2014 
Pole Creek firefighter Mackenzie Wilson
SISTERS, Ore. -

More heavy winds pushed the day-old Pole Creek Fire southwest of Sisters to 4,300 acres on Monday, officials said late in the day – but fortunately, winds were pushing the fire into the Three Sisters Wilderness, not toward populated areas.

Fire bosses said about 200 firefighters were on the line as of Tuesday morning, with many more resources on order. On Monday, most of the heavy burning was in the wilderness and lighter “under-burning” in lower-elevation areas of the fire, according to the Central Oregon Interagency Dispatch Center in Prineville.

Unlike Monday's smoky skies and late-night large brown plume spreading across the darkening skies, the Cascades again were visible Tuesday across most of Central Oregon as the smoke lessened and hugged the ground in cooler temperatures.

But while the flames might not be reaching Sisters, the smoke certainly was -- pushing air quality to "unhealthy" levels, according to the DEQ.

Here's the full Tuesday 8 a.m. update from fire officials:

As of 8:00 p.m. Monday, command and management of suppression efforts for the Pole Creek Fire transferred from the local Type 3 Team, to Oregon Interagency Incident Management Team 4 (OR IIMT4), Incident Commander Brian Watts.

Full suppression efforts are being implemented on this incident using direct and indirect methods while maintaining firefighter and public safety as the top priority.

For firefighter and public safety, an area closure is in place around the vicinity of the fire. The closure includes Forest Service roads 15 and 16 several spur roads leading into the fire area, trailheads and the Three Creeks Campground area. Closed roads will be signed, barricaded, or staffed to advise the public of the closure.
Closure maps and area descriptions are available at Deschutes National Forest offices as well as http://inciweb.org/incident/3244/

In the event that there is a need for an evacuation, citizens who use a cell phone or a VoIP phone who live in the affected area should go to www.deschutes.org/citizenalerts to register those devices to receive emergency notifications.

On Monday, crews were able to construct and establish containment lines on portions of the fire. Overnight, firefighters patrolled the fire perimeter for spot fires outside firelines.

Smoke will remain in the area settling at night into valleys and drainages. Density will depend on wind directions and speeds.

The cause of the fire remains under investigation. Tuesday's plans were to build containment lines and use existing roads and fire breaks to strengthen the line. Crews planned to continue to patrole and respond to spot firs.

The forecasted fire weather: Temperatures will be in the cool 60s on Tuesday, with winds from the east up to 9 mph, shifting to northeast wit gusts of 20 mph. Relative humidity will be in the 20-30 percent range.

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The fire was reported just before 11 Sunday morning near the popular Pole Creek Trailhead, sending not just fire crews but search and rescue crews into action.

"There was a number of folks that got themselves in a position where they had to make good decisions very quickly," said Deschutes County Sheriff's Search and Rescue Coordinator Sgt. Scott Shelton.

On Monday morning a spotter plane assisting the SAR unit swooped over the Three Sisters Wilderness.

"They're going to look for us to make sure that we don't have any hikers on the ground that are in need of help or anything of that nature," Shelton said.

On the ground, heavy machinery was being trucked around the forest on roads now closed to the public. Many of the campgrounds are also closed, and some are being used as staging areas for fire crews.

Battling the blaze is an uphill battle through rough terrain. The forest floor is covered in pine needles ready to fuel the fire.

"Those fuels are dry -- even though we're starting to feel cool, those fuels are still dry," said Forest Service spokeswoman Jean Nelson-Dean.

At a packed community meeting Monday evening at Sisters High School, officials talked about what happened Sunday, as well as Monday's developments and what may be coming.

Fire managers said colder, even sub-freezing overnight temperatures due in the area will help, and the winds are expected to shift to the east, pushing the fire where they want it. But they said it would continue to burn until fall rains, so they will devote resources to stop its progress and not burn a large segment of the wilderness.

Sheriff Larry Blanton said authorities are preparing in case the winds do push the fire closer to Sisters, and Sisters-Camp Sherman RFPD officials are preparing for the worst, just in case.

Here's the Monday evening map of the fire, as presented to community members at a public meeting.

Earlier Monday, the size estimate increased to 2,000 acres after successful burnout operations -- and the winds turned in a favorable direction, away from populated areas, officials said.

"We did have a successful burnout last night," said Tory Kurtz at COIDC in Prineville.

In an update early Monday afternoon, fire managers said the winds were pushing the fire toward the west and southwest, into the Three Sisters Wilderness Area (and away from threatened homes).

Meanwhile, numerous parked vehicles from the Pole Creek Trailhead were being towed out of the forest Monday. Four were destroyed by flames, a few others damaged and the rest undamaged (but whose owners were evacuated in the face of the fire.) Other hikers who had been out in the woods when the fire broke out were escorted out of the area.

The smoke that sent up a tall, billowing plume for much of Sunday had laid down overnight, making it hard to see the fire's status from afar until Monday afternoon. But a good sign of progress (and shifting winds) was ODOT's decision to reopen  Highway 242 (the McKenzie Pass Highway) Monday morning.

Winds were a concern once again Monday, with forecasts for winds up to 25 mph until 6 pm.

"This is a fuel-driven fire with heavy down and dead material," the Monday morning update said. "Safety for the public and firefighters is the number one priority because of the high exposure to snags and bug kill timber. The cause of the fire is still under investigation."

A successful burnout operation was conducted on the south side Sunday evening in an attempt to secure a portion of the fire and give firefighters a safe anchor point from which to strengthen their efforts.

As crews respond to the scene, a Type II management team was set to assume command by 8 p..m. Monday, The fire camp was being set up at the Sisters Rodeo grounds Monday.

"Safety for the public and firefighters is the number one priority because of the high exposure to snags and bug kill timber," the update said.

.An emergency area closure was in place south of Hwy 242 (McKenzie Pass) following the Deschutes County line west, then south near Three Creek Lake and east to Forest Service Rroad 4606.

Here is the fire area closure map for Monday.

The fire has an InciWeb page for the latest information.

The pre-evacuation notice is still in place. For more information on the status of evacuations, call 541-550-4886 for the most up to date information.

They said the fire remains six to seven miles south of Sisters and did not move closer overnight -- in fact, the wind shifted around 3 a.m., causing the fire to burn back into itself.

While fire bosses at a briefing shared good progress in developing fire lines, residents south of Sisters were warned to "remain vigilant and prepared to evacuate if necessary," since increased winds forecast could shift and push the fire back toward the north, testing fire lines.

Winds pushed the blaze through live and downed timber Sunday, torching four vehicles parked in the area and prompting evacuations of campsites and trails over a wide area southwest of Sisters.

A tall billowing smoke plume was visible across the High Desert and beyond in the blue late summer sky from the Pole Creek Fire that began near the eastern border of the Three Sisters Wilderness Area.

As winds pushed the blaze northeast, the smoke plume dropped in that direction for much of the afternoon, and lightened as plenty of water and retardant was poured onto it. But by early Sunday evening, the plume darkened and was billowing straight up once again, reaching high into the sky.

The fire was reported around 10:45 a.m. by Deschutes County 911 dispatchers to the COIDC.

By 1 p.m., the fire, moving through timber and downed trees, had grown to at least 150 acres and was growing very fast in blustery winds, officials said.

It grew another 10-fold in size by 4:30 p.m., as crews prepared for burnout operations to rob the advancing fire of fuel.

By 5 p.m., authorities said that everyone had been evacuated from the closure area, including the Three Creeks Campground. They also confirmed four vehicles in the fire area had been destroyed and several others sustained damage. They also again urged everyone to stay out of the area, for safety sake.

A precautionary, pre-evacuation notice was issued Sunday afternoon for the Crossroads subdivision west of Sisters, as well as homes along Edgington, Remuda Road and homes along Forest Road 16 (Three Creeks Road), said Kristen Bowles at the Central Oregon Interagency Dispatch Center in Prineville.

The sheriff's office said residents south of Sisters were given a pre-evacuation notice to warn them to prepare and to be ready to leave immediately. Plans are in place, in case evacuation is required.

"If you have large animals, now may be a good time to load and relocate them," the statement said.

Also, anyone with friends or family who had been hiking or staying in the Pole Creek area that have not checked in was urged to call 911 with their names and last known location or plans.

The cause of the fire was not yet known, although dry lightning strikes -- at least 40 in Oregon, 3,500 in Washington overnight -- had sparked several new blazes around the Northwest.

As winds pushed the Pole Creek Fire toward the northeast, ODOT at mid-afternoon shut Highway 242 (the McKenzie Pass Highway) from milepost 89 (the Trout Creek intersection) on the east side to White Branch Road on the west side.

Forest Service Roads 15 (Pole Creek Road) and 16 (Three Creeks Road) also were closed due to the fire, from which ash was falling as far away as Crooked River Ranch and southwest Redmond

People were being urged to stay out of the area as dozens if not hundreds of campers and hikers were evacuated, with numerous forest roads and trails being closed to keep people out.

An air tanker joined three water-dropping helicopters battling the blaze, along with fire crews and an engine. A Type 2 incident management team will take over management of the fire Monday as more resources are ordered in.

Four air tankers were ordered up, though some might have to instead head to a new blaze on Washington’s Gifford Pinchot National Forest, said Jada Altman at COIDC.

“The (Pole Creek Trailhead on the wilderness boundary) parking lot is threatened at this time,” Altman said. “We’re trying to get folks out of the way of the fire, not headed to their cars.”

Smoke jumpers were called in early on, but were unable to deploy due to the winds, Altman said.

Fire managers and 911 dispatchers urged people to stay out of the area and said those in the area were being urged to evacuate to Park Meadow or the Obsidian Trailhead for further evacuations.

If they can't get there, they need to get to a "safe zone," dispatchers said -- that being anywhere they are not surrounded by timber, or to head to a body of water for safety.

While SAR teams and deputies worked to get campers and hikers out of the area, others knocked at the doors at homes scattered in the woods along Three Creeks Road and elsewhere south of Sisters, advising residents to be ready to leave should the fire move closer.

The county's emergency phone notification system was being employed to give that pre-evacuation alert message to a wide area, including Crossroads, west of Sisters.

The fire broke out just as the National Weather Service imposed a Red Flag Warning over a wide area through 11 p.m. Monday due to potentially explosive fire behavior as winds kick up ahead of a cold front, with gusts of 30-40 mph possible.