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Hundreds evacuated from path of fast-growing Oregon wildfire

By Courtney Sherwood

PORTLAND Ore. (Reuters) - A wind-whipped Oregon brush fire forced the evacuation of 600 people and shut a highway by Thursday as firefighters struggled against steady winds to tame the growing blaze and tamp down others across the U.S. Pacific Northwest, fire officials said.

The so-called Rowena fire, which grew eight-fold overnight to 1,900 acres in the scenic Columbia River Gorge in northern Oregon, led to 275 homes being evacuated by morning. A further 600 residences were on standby for possible evacuation.

Overnight, the flames had spread from steep terrain near the community of Rowena to the outskirts of the nearby city of The Dalles, and officials warned the closure of a 13-mile section of U.S. Highway 30 could be extended as the fire worsened.

The National Weather Service issued a "red flag warning" for northeast Oregon and southeast Washington state on Wednesday, indicating new wildfires are likely to spark and spread quickly in the region.

In Oregon alone, firefighters were battling a dozen wildfires across some 100,000 acres, the National Wildfire Coordinating Group said. Numerous public lands are closed and a major power transmission line to Idaho lies in the path of one of the fires.

The blazes are part of the broader West Coast fire season, which runs from mid-May to mid-October, which experts have said has been exacerbated by extreme drought in California and unusually dry conditions across Oregon, Washington and Idaho.

Meanwhile, a wildfire burning close to a city in central Washington state expanded rapidly over the past day, threatening more homes and structures.

The Snag Canyon fire burning about 10 miles outside of Ellensburg, home to about 18,000 people, had more than doubled in size since Tuesday as steady winds pushed flames further into surrounding canyons, fire officials said.

"All the property we are really trying to protect is to the west, south and east," said Cory Wall, a spokesman with the Washington Incident Management Team. "We're definitely keeping an eye on these winds."

The fire had grown to about 8,400 acres on Thursday, up from 3,500 on Tuesday, and was 10 percent contained, Wall said. Evacuation orders were in effect for about 250 homes, and 16 structures have been destroyed, including six houses.

Straddling the Oregon-California border, the Beaver complex fires – which earlier in the week burned six houses – received a visit from Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber on Wednesday.

In California's Lassen National Forest, firefighters reported progress containing the state's two biggest blazes burning miles from one another through drought-parched grass, timber and trees.

Evacuation orders were lifted for the Shasta County town of Burney, with a population of about 3,000 people, after the area filled with smoke from the 45-square-mile Eiler Fire and 62-square-mile Bald Fire.

(Additional reporting by Vicky Cavaliere in Seattle; Writing by Eric M. Johnson; Editing by Toby Chopra, Cynthia Johnston and Eric Walsh)

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