(Update: New info from C. Oregon dispatchers, Forest Service area resident)
BEND, Ore. (KTVZ) – Thunderstorms hit Central Oregon with numerous lightning strikes Thursday, sparking nearly 20 fires that crews rushed to contain, mostly at small size -- one west of Bend thanks to a fortunate air tanker flyover and retardant drop -- and a big Bend power outage. Crews were still tackling several larger fires Friday.
"We had some good luck there," Deschutes National Forest spokeswoman Jean Nelson-Dean said Friday. "We had an air tanker already crossing the area, saw that there was smoke and then worked to get retardant on the ground, so we can get ground resources there as quickly as possible."
The predicted thunderstorms began to hit the region just after 4 p.m., sparking blazes near Black Butte, south of La Pine State Park near Tetherow boat launch, and several west of Bend in the area of Phil’s Trail, Tumalo Creek and Skyliners Road, officials said.
Initial attack crews were prepared and deployed to stop the blazes, also out to find more into Friday.
Bill Leppert, a Bend resident, said he was concerned when the fire broke out near Phil's Trail west of Tetherow
'It's very close, and we're kind of a tinderbox," Leppert said.
Leppert, who utilizes many of the trails Central Oregon offers, said with the close call Bend had, it likely won't be the last.
"I'm quite concerned of our scarcity of water in the West in particular, and we're going to see more and more fires. There's no doubt." Leppert said.
Nelson-Dean added that the quick actions from fire crews helped contain that fire to about an acre.
"If that fire had really taken off, obviously it would have caused some significant damage and would have been a threat to the city of Bend," Nelson-Dean said.
Three fires grew much larger in north-central Oregon.
The Deep Creek fire began around 6 p.m. Thursday and was mapped at 1,219 acres Friday, having been estimated at 2,000 acres earlier in the day. It is located west of Shaniko and north of the junction of Highway 97 and Highway 197, near Deep Creek.
The Bakeoven-Shaniko Rural Fire Protection Association and private landowners first responded to the Deep Creek Fire, followed by firefighters from the Prineville BLM District coming to assist. On Friday, working together with the FPA and private landowners, federal firefighting resources including engines, dozers, crews, and air support worked on the fire.
Firefighters will be challenged by expected thunderstorms over the two fires, which will bring wind and the potential for additional lightning.
Four other fire starts from Thursday’s lightning were found Friday. All four fires were contained at 0.1 of an acre, though more starts are expected with predicted lightning across Central Oregon.
The second-largest fire, at 884 acres, had been contained by Friday morning. Along with federal resources from the Prineville BLM District, the fire was fought by the Ashwood Rural Fire Protection District.
But another new fire, the 772-acre Johnson Ridge Fire, also was spotted Friday morning, burning in grass and juniper west of Shaniko.
The Oregon Department of Forestry's Central Oregon District said several lightning-sparked fires had been stopped small, but there was one on the John Day Unit, the Cottonwood Creek Fire, estimated at 75 acres, burning in grass, brush and timber. and tackled by engines, helicopters, heavy air tankers, SEATs (single-engine air tankers and bulldozers.
Initial attack resources will continue to monitor areas across Central Oregon Friday as new starts from lightning are anticipated. In addition, more lightning is expected Friday, which will cause new starts. If people see fire starts, please call 911 and that information can be relayed to dispatchers.
Bend Deputy Fire Marshal Dan Derlacki said the U.S. Forest Service, Oregon Department of Forestry, Deschutes County Sheriff’s Office and numerous other agencies responded after the first fires broke out around 4:30 p.m. Two columns of smoke from fires were seen, one from the Phil’s Trail system west of Tetherow and the Highlands neighborhoods, the other off Forest Road 4606, above Tumalo Creek.
No homes were directly threatened by the fires, Derlacki said, and most access to the area remained open.
The power went out shortly before 5 p.m. on the north end of Bend, knocking out service to homes, businesses and traffic signals. Some were back in an hour or 90 minutes, while others had power restored just after 8 p.m., spokesman Tom Gauntt said.
The outage also caused several fire alarm activations around town, Derlacki said. Other Bend fire crews assisted the businesses, as more fires were reported off China Hat and Alfalfa Market roads.
A large air tanker was diverted from its route to another fire and was on scene quickly to tackle the two larger fires west of Bend. That helped crews keep the fire near Phil’s Trail at about 1.6 acres and the 4606 Road fire about a half-acre.
Central Oregon fire dispatchers said in their Twitter posts that Sunriver Fire, Redmond Fire and contract firefighters also helped tackle the lightning-sparked fires, including the Skyliner 2 Fire, about three miles northwest of Bend.
"Fortunately, an air tanker was passing over the area when the fire began, spotted smoke from the fire, and started initial attack while the fire was still small.," Friday's update said.
"The fire had significant potential to cause damage to homes and infrastructure near Bend, but with the air tanker being able to drop retardant on the fire, it helped ground resources get to it and contain it," the update added. " Firefighters from the Forest Service and Bend Fire were able to put out the fire with the assistance of the air tanker and helicopters.
As the storms moved north, starts were reported on BLM Prineville District land near the Deschutes River, Bakeoven Road and Shaniko.
"More fires are likely to come over the next day or two," an update said. "Please do everything you can do to prevent human caused starts. We have enough going on with natural starts!"
“This is a good reminder that even though we have received some rain over the past week, we are still in extreme fire danger,” Derlacki said. “Vegetation is still dry and fires can still spread quickly, even with the summer rain showers we’ve experienced. Burning is still closed throughout much of Central and Eastern Oregon. We ask everyone to be extremely safe with anything that could start a fire, whether you’re in the woods or in town.”