Fire risk likely rises to ‘extreme’ this week as heat dries fuels further
(Update: Adding video, comments from fire officials, US Forest Service)
BEND, Ore. (KTVZ) — Firefighters have been busy with a string of small, human-caused wildfires over the past two days as temperatures rise — some from escaped campfires, and one a brush fire east of Bend Tuesday morning, sparked by a bird that met its demise on a power line.
The two-acre brush fire near the intersection of Billadeau and Rickard Road was reported around 10:40 a.m., not far from livestock, and quickly called in by passers-by.
Callers said they heard a “bang” and then saw the fire in the grass and brush break out in a large open area, spreading to juniper trees, Bend Deputy Fire Marshal Dan Derlacki said.
Incident 436 was reported as a fire of about 20 square feet in size, but “grew very quickly,” Forest Service Public Affairs Officer Kassidy Kern said. (Though the bird was the cause, Kern said it’s considered a human-caused fire, due to the ignition source.)
Crews from the Bend and Alfalfa fire departments, along with the U.S. Forest Service, arrived as wind pushed the fire (labeled Incident 436) south, toward Rickard Road, but were able to quickly get around it and stop its advance with hoses and hand tools, assisted by passers-by and neighbors with shovels, Derlacki said.
The fire knocked out power to nearly 500 Central Electric Cooperative members for over an hour and was caused by an unusual circumstance. A small bird that had put a nest atop a power pole and was killed when it touched the two wires, officials said.
“A birds nest on a power pole that’s behind me,” Derlacki explained on scene. “The bird ended up getting between two lines. It ignited — it actually burned a little of the top of the pole. That fell down (and) a few feet away from the bottom pole was light grass that caught on fire, and with the wind and heat today, it picked up.”
It was a small bird and the species could not be determined.
It was one of several recent small blazes that have fire officials worried about how a heat wave will further dry potential wildfire fuels.
As the crews worked, Derlacki said they issued a few precautionary evacuations to a couple homes on the south side of Rickard Road until they had a secure line around it. The firefighting effort closed the intersection for about two hours.
Kern said they also had picked up two other human-caused fires Tuesday morning – one an abandoned campfire that was still hot and smoking in the fire ring, and another that escaped the fire ring.
“These are growing very quickly now,” she said. “We have a lot (of resources) ‘in the barn,’” ready to tackle new blazes, as they have for several weeks around the region, fortunately stopping them at fairly small sizes. “So we’re prepared if lightning hits, but we sure would like to not to have these human starts.”
Meanwhile, the brush fire that shut down the Powell Butte Highway Monday afternoon was determined to have been caused by an discarded cigarette.
Bend Fire Deputy Chief and Fire Marshal Jason Bolen warned about what may be to come.
“We’re heading into some really hot days, coming off of some really hot days, humidity’s low, temperatures are on the rise, so we’re expecting to see heightened fire activity in the next week or so,” Bolen said.
Jason Camperman, a fire inspector for Bend Fire & Rescue, encouraged people to limit activities that cause wildfires and said it’s important to create defensible space.
“People don’t realize you can have a fire anywhere from, in this case, a couple hundred yards up to a couple miles away that can bring up embers in the wind, and then they can drop down into the property,” Camperman said. “We call those spot fires.”
To avoid them, it’s important to move any combustibles liked dried-out weeds, trees hanging over the roof line and lumber away from your property.
Derlacki said area fire agencies will move to “extreme” fire danger levels.
As part of its wildfire mitigation plan, CEC Communications Coordinator Courtney Cobb said the co-op has set over 100 “reclosers” to more sensitive settings on various distribution lines in high-risk wildfire areas, including those along Rickard and Billadeau roads.
“Placing the distribution reclosers on the sensitive settings prevents the reenergizing of the power lines when a foreign object, like a bird, makes contact,” she said. “Line personnel visually inspected entire sections of the power line before reenergizing, to ensure nothing else had made contact.”
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