Dozens of small fires doused after 6,500 lightning strikes

All kept small, but more being found; call 911, officials say

BEND, Ore. - Central Oregon fire crews have responded to about 70 smoke reports since thunderstorms raked the region with about 6,500 lightning strikes Sunday, finding most to be very small and quickly extinguished, officials said.

Firefighters are still responding to all the reports, the Central Oregon Interagency Dispatch Center said. In general, they have been single-tree lightning strikes and have burned less than a half-acre.

"Most, but not all reports have turned out to actually be fires," a Monday evening update said, "but everyone is encouraged to report any suspected fire."

Calling 911 is still "the fastest and surest way to report any emergency, including suspected fires," the dispatch center said. "When reporting a fire, please be as specific as possible with information on exactly where the fire is and what is the situation.

The string of intense thunderstorms roared through the High Desert Sunday afternoon, raking the area with thousands of lightning strikes, hail, heavy rain and wind, toppling trees, damaging crops, igniting fires, knocking out power for thousands -- and killing a motorcyclist who took shelter under a tree struck by lightning.

Lightning detectors picked up more than 6,500 lighting strikes across Central Oregon in just three hours, between 2 and 5 p.m. Sunday, according to Dennis Benson at the Central Oregon Interagency Dispatch Center in Prineville.

One of those bolts was deadly, as it struck a tree under which a motorcyclist and his wife had taken cover northeast of Madras. Jefferson County Sheriff Jim Adkins said the man hit by the lightning was killed and his wife injured. Details in separate story here.

Initial-attack crews responded to more than 40 smoke reports between 2 p.m. and nightfall Sunday, with several of the new starts between Bend and Redmond, Benson said. Fortunately, the accompanying rain, high humidity and low temperatures helped reduce fire behavior, he added.

One positive aspect: These were anything but the worst-feared dry lightning storms. Redmond Airport, for example, recorded .84 of an inch of rain in the 24 hours ending at 5 p.m. -- shattering the old Aug. 25 record of .34 of an inch, set in 1977.

Other rainfall totals reported Monday included .93 of an inch in Redmond, 1.10 inches at Pelton Dam -- one inch over the old record for the day -- and a half-inch to an inch in the Madras area. A record also was broken in Sisters, where nearly a third of an inch fell, clipping an old record of .28 of an inch for the day, set back in 1979.

The National Weather Service issued a string of severe thunderstorm warnings for areas of Deschutes and Jefferson counties over a period of several hours Sunday as the worst of the storms moved north.

An apparently weather-related injury multi-vehicle crash occurred in the late afternoon and blocked Highway 97 north of Madras, near milepost 79 (south of the 97-197 junction). (Details in separate story here.)

Witness Dina Broome Springstun said on NewsChannel 21's Facebook page that she "just witnessed a horrible accident," involving four-plus cars/trucks, amid "heavy rain and a ton of water, rocks and debris in the road."

For a time, Deschutes and Crook County medics were called in to assist as Life Flight reportedly was grounded due to the intense thunderstorms. But dispatchers later reported the out-of-county assist on the crash would not be needed, and an AirLink helicopter was sent to St. Charles-Bend.

Hundreds of those lightning strikes came from just one thunderstorm cell in the Madras area, but "this moisture we did get really helped out" in keeping things from being worse, Benson said.

Smokejumpers and engine crews already had been busy this weekend, as they have for weeks, chasing down numerous smoke reports and dousing small fires before they get bigger. Most come from lightning - but unfortunately, people leaving unattended illegal campfires in the woods also comprise a portion of the blazes.

Pacific Power said nearly 4,300 customers in Culver, Madras and Crooked River Ranch lost power around 1:20 p.m. and said then that it could take until 4:30 p.m. to get them back online. But about 2,500 still had power out by then, however, and they had their power restored by about 7:25 p.m.

Powell Butte resident Jeannine Erhart wrote comments typical of many in the region:

"The wind swept through so fast and so hard!  It split our large maple tree down the center, blew over our dog kennel that hit the Noble paneling in the corral and stopped going, blew the fruit off our large pear tree, took branches off a large poplar.  My neighbor was not so lucky.  It blew part of her roofing away.  Very, very strong winds, then the hard rain.  Lived here 14 years and never saw anything like this."

Northwest Redmond resident Alan Fresh said trees snapped off in the yard and there was some serious flooding: "It has been a few years since I've seen anything like this!"

By early afternoon, very heavy rain caused some street flooding in Madras, overwhelming storm drains and dislodging manhole covers.

Northeast of Madras, an NWS spotter said winds estimated at 70-80 mph damaged several irrigation wheel lines and dropped quarter-sized hail. Another spotter -- and off-duty NWS worker -- reported hail one inch in size just southeast of Madras.

One of those irrigation lines apparently was blown onto Highway 26 north of Madras, and a similar incident was reported later in the afternoon - one of dozens that had police and fire crews scrambling for several hours.

A Jefferson County Fire District duty officer's SUV sustained major front-end damage, but there were no injuries when a motorist failed to yield to his lights and sirens and the two vehicles collided, said Fire Chief Brian Huff.

Huff also reported a hailstorm caused "major, major" crop damage in the Agency Plains area, north of Madras.

"It's been an interesting day," he told NewsChannel 21 during a brief pause amid a late-afternoon downpour.

Golf ball-sized hail (nearly 2 inches in diameter) broke windows and damaged playground equipment at a home on the north side of Madras, a weather spotter said.

Tammie Schongalla was returning to Madras with a friend from a trip to Lewiston, Idaho Sunday afternoon when they saw and took photos of an ominous storm up ahead on Highway 97 north of Madras -- then encountered it.

"We were pulled over on the side of the road with all of the other traffic, waiting for it to pass and praying," she wrote, calling it "one of the scariest experiences of my life."

Redmond police urged residents by Twitter to avoid travel if possible due to localized flooding in areas around the city.

Eagle Crest Resort apparently lost power, possibly when lightning struck a tree, seting it ablaze south of Highway 126.

At Lake Billy Chinook, a Cove Palisades State Park ranger said the park lost power and phones in a lightning strike from the first of several storms that caused severe flooding and several landslides and mudslides that blocked roads.

He said Jefferson County sheriff's deputies responded to help park staff who used a large backhoe and tractor after two slides near each other created a temporary blockage, including large boulders, rocks, mud and other debris.

Park volunteers spent hours shoveling mud, rocks and debris from the only restroom/shower in the Deschutes Campground that will work with power out, but which was flooded twice by heavy rainfall, leaving at least 6-8 inches of solid mud behind.

Another NWS spotter northeast of Redmond in Crook County reported hail three-quarters of an inch in diameter; so did a spotter northeast of Terrebonne in Jefferson County.

An attic fire from an apparent lightning strike was reported at a home at 3240 SW Quartz Place in Redmond; all inside were out before crews arrived to put out the blaze.

Some areas around Madras had lakes of standing water, while there were reports of a possibly flipped plane at Madras Airport, one day after the Airshow of the Cascades concluded, and damage to a grain silo, trees down and broken windows  in Gateway, northeast of Madras.

The lights went off along Hwy. 97 in Redmond, at least briefly, after a power pole was struck, one of many lighting strikes on trees across the region tackled by fire crews. Another hit a juniper tree on Hwy. 20 about 20 miles east of Bend, and another reportedly blew a transformer on Dodds Road, east of Bend.

Heavy rain and 1 25-inch diameter hail covered the ground northwest of Prineville, near the intersection of Highway 26 and Lone Pine Road. Heavy rain and quarter-sized hail also hit the Tumalo area.

Two trees fell and blocked a road near Wickiup Reservoir, among the many toppled trees reported in the region -- one that reportedly fell on a horse near Big Timber Drive in La Pine.

A 70-foot-tall tree was reported ablaze not far from Alfalfa Market Road east of Bend. The area had periods of time in the early afternoon when thunder rumbled almost continuously for several minutes.

There was a sunny break for an hour or so on Bend's north end before skies darkened and heavy rain and hail began pelting the area around 2:30 p.m.

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