Graham Fire scars Three Rivers
A wind-whipped lightning fire, which started June 21, in the Three Rivers area west of Lake Billy Chinook, was slowly moving toward containment on Tuesday.
The 2,175-acre Graham Fire, which burned three vacation homes, eight outbuildings and four recreational vehicles, was reported to be 85 percent contained at the June 26 briefing.
The fire was started by lightning from a massive thunderstorm that passed over the area Wednesday, June 20. Don Colfels, fire chief for Lake Chinook Fire and Rescue, was immediately on the lookout for fires from the 12 strikes that hit in his district, west of Lake Billy Chinook, and managed to locate and put out several hot spots.
On Thursday, he surveyed the area from a tower at the Air Park, and again spotted smoke in the area of Fly Creek shortly before 2 p.m. "It was burning in grass and some juniper in the dry bed of Fly Lake," said Colfels, who arrived at the scene of the one-quarter acre fire accompanied by a Forest Service engine. "The wind was blowing so hard, we couldn't make any progress. Within a few minutes, it went to 10 acres, and within one-half hour, to 25 acres."
Because of the fire's rapid progression, Colfels immediately called in more resources and backed off the fire in order to assess structure protection. "It was blowing up Big Canyon. It got into Allen Canyon and when it popped out, it had two heads — one blowing east along Graham Road, and the other heading northeast through Big Canyon, heading into the Three Rivers subdivision."
At that time, Colfels estimated that about 350 of the 650 homesites were threatened. "Some have two, three or four structures; one lost four structures, but we saved their home," he said.
"Thursday, Friday and Saturday were all windy," said Colfels. "The fire was exhibiting extraordinary behavior: running in the grass, torching junipers and sagebrush. From 2 to 4:30, it ran about 2 1/2 miles."
After their initial attack, Colfels asked the Governor's Office to declare the fire a conflagration, and was pleasantly surprised when Gov. Kate Brown soon made the announcement, which allowed the Office of the State Fire Marshal to mobilize the Green Incident Management Team, two structural task forces, and equipment to protect structures.
Colfels had also asked dispatch for two local task forces and called in air support. As Task Force 2 began to arrive, including engines and firefighters from Jefferson County, Crooked River Ranch, Warm Springs, Sisters, Redmond, Black Butte and Cloverdale — all were assigned to protect structures.
With the fire hitting the west end of Southwest Airfield Lane and heading east, "The task forces were leap-frogging from home to home, pushing it back into the canyon," said Colfels.
By the time Task Force 1, from Deschutes County, began to arrive, "There were 40- to 50-foot flame lengths," he said. "One had to be a 100-foot wall of flame coming out of the canyon."
Colfels credits a homeowners association grant that allowed them to improve and reduce fuel along Southwest Prospect View Drive and Southwest Meadow Drive as a key element that allowed them to get a handle on the fire. "Sure enough, that's where we were able to hold the fire," he said.
Thursday evening, the fire had grown to 750 acres, and Jefferson County Sheriff's Office ordered a Level 3 evacuation, directing all residents of the subdivision to leave. Friday, the fire blew up to more than 2,000 acres, and the evacuation level remained. Saturday, with 375 personnel on the fire, the tide began to turn, and the evacuation level was reduced to Level 2 — be set to leave.
Over the weekend, crews worked on containment and mop-up operations, and by Monday, Sheriff Jim Adkins lowered the evacuation to Level 1 — be ready to leave — allowing residents to return to their homes.
"We will be judged by how well we leave this fire for the local district and residents," said Team 2 Incident Commander Chris Cline. "Mop up is hard, dirty work. But it's critically important to do it well. When we mop up right, we can hand the fire back to the local district knowing the perimeter will hold,"
Colfels praised the local task forces that conducted the initial attack. "They did a stupendous job," he said. "I've been on a lot of fires; they really stepped up to the plate on structure protection."
"We should have lost a lot more homes," said Colfels. "The reason we didn't, was because of the efforts of the local task forces, defensible space and the fuels mitigation on the roads. In addition, property owners that did defensible space made it safe for firefighters to defend their homes."
Noting that area residents may be eligible for a $300 grant for cleaning up the area around their homes, Colfels encouraged residents to remove all combustibles within 30 feet of their homes.
"This is early in the season," he said. "It's not too late for people to clean up 30 feet around their house. A little bit of work can increase the odds of saving their homes."
As of Tuesday morning, the perimeter of the fire had remained the same for three days, prompting the Oregon Department of Forestry Incident Management Team 2 to prepare to turn the fire over to ODF's Central Oregon District on Wednesday, June 27.
"Control lines around the fire's perimeter have been mopped up to at least 50 feet," ODF noted in its final press release. "However, local residents may still expect to see occasional smoke from pockets of unburnt fuel smoldering in the fire's interior. If residents see flames or spot fires, they are advised to call 911."