HEPPNER — Crews continue to make “good progress” on the HK Complex Fires in the Umatilla National Forest with lightning forecasts threatening to start more, according to a press release on Friday morning.
The release from Northwest Incident Management Team 6 states that the fires are 30% contained with eight fires that have been completely contained. In total, the fires have burned 2,655 acres, which is 200 acres larger than Thursday’s report.
The fires are reportedly burning out along three miles of line east of Tupper Butte. Many of the small fires have been contained and crews continue to mop them up and patrol the area, while the Sulfer Springs and Little Bear fires have merged at the 21 Road.
Lauren Maloney, public information officer for Northwest Incident Management Team 6, said the additional 200 acres of burning mostly took place from the planned merging of the two fires so that crews can further secure lines around them.
Both the Forest Service and the Oregon Department of Forestry are partnering in certain areas and are preparing for the risk of “abundant lightning” in the area sparking more.
On Thursday, the National Weather Service issued a red flag warning until 10 a.m. on Saturday due to potentially strong thunderstorms bringing lightning, heavy rain and hail along with “erratic” wind gusts of up to 50 mph to the area. Last weekend, lightning in the area originally ignited the fires.
Preparations include analyzing the different fire areas, which according to Maloney each feature unique topography challenges to confront.
“It’s important to identify key trigger points at each of the areas so our crews know at how much wind and how much rain they need to pull firefighters the heck out of there,” she said.
At Friday morning’s briefing, Maloney said all firefighters were instructed to review page 21 of their safety handbooks. Page 21 outlines guidelines to follow in thunder and lightning storms and things to consider such as sounds and atmospheric conditions that can alert crews when they need to leave area.
The weather may help some of the crews’ efforts too.
“Fortunately it looks like we’re going to get some rain,” Umatilla National Forest public affairs officer Darcy Weseman said.
That rain can help dampen some of the fires, she said, and will help lower the fire risk in coming days with the lower temperatures that accompany it.
However, Maloney said the rain also means that crews must consider road conditions with many of them around the fire areas being unpaved. She said crews are being thoughtful with what large equipment they use and where they use it to avoid getting stuck in the mud.
“Personally, I’m going to allow extra time to drive safely between areas and not feel pressured by time,” Maloney said.
Weseman acknowledged that the rain can also lead to what she calls “sleeper fires,” where fires can be smoldered but not completely put out by the rain, and then reignited by strong winds.
To address that risk, Maloney said there will be five engines and crews on a night shift that will patrol the area tonight.
“We need to be extra vigilant with lightning in the area,” she said.
The release warns that when lightning is active, people should seek shelter in a vehicle or building. If you are outdoors and cannot find shelter, the release says to find a place low to the ground that’s away from tall trees, wire fences, utility lines and other conductive devices.
After 474 personnel being assigned to the fires as of Thursday, Friday’s release reports there are 448 personnel currently assigned. Resources include multiple engines and crews along with multiple fixed-wing and helicopter aircraft.
Aviation resources and lookout towers that are tasked with monitoring the complex’s current fires and detecting new ones may not be operational if the area is hit with lightning and high winds, according to Weseman.
The fire danger rating remains high and public use restrictions on chain saws remain in effect according to the release. A closure order also remains in effect due to fire activity in the area.
A public meeting will be held at 6 p.m. on Friday night about the HK Complex Fires. It will be located at Hepper City Hall on 111 North Main Street.
“The intent is to share information and update locals about the status of the fires,” Weseman said. “And also to provide an opportunity for people to ask questions about the efforts.”