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'Extreme fire behavior': Whitewater Fire explodes to 1,500 acres, escapes wilderness

The Whitewater Fire on the Willamette National Forest (USDA Forest Service)

DETROIT, Ore. - The Whitewater Fire exploded in size Monday, going from less than 300 acres to 1,500 acres by nightfall, fire managers said.

The fire has now crossed the Mount Jefferson Wilderness boundary near the Whitewater Trail. Crews started preparing for that contingency last week.

"As a result of last night’s active fire behavior, today’s operations will utilize aviation resources, such as helicopters and retardant planes, to slow fire spread and contain lines," fire managers said Wednesday in a briefing. "Crews and heavy equipment continue to prepare containment lines on the Southern and Western flanks of the fire. Fire managers continue to scout containment opportunities using existing road systems. Instability in the atmosphere and its effect on fire behavior, presents today’s primary concern."

The smoke contributed to unhealthy air in Eugene/Springfield on Wednesday morning.

And more is likely as the week goes on.

“All the ingredients for extreme fire behavior are present today,” said Steve Zeil, fire behavior analyst for the overhead team managing the firefight.

National Weather Service meteorologists have issued a red flag warning, predicting temperatures up to 100 degrees, humidity levels at 9 percent to 13 percent and wind gusts up to 20 mph.

The fire started in June with a lightning strike. It smoldered in obscurity until the right combination of hot, dry weather and breezy wind fanned the flames into a forest fire spotted from a commercial plane July 23.

There are 175 people working the fire. It is 10 percent contained.

Road and trail closures remain in place, including closure of the popular Jefferson Park area and an 11-mile stretch of the Pacific Crest Trail.

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