Substation Fire No. 1 priority in the nation, firefighters hold it to 50,000 acres

A farmer works to create a fire break with a tractor Thursday, July 19, 2018 to keep the Substation Fire from spreading. Firefighters held the fire to about 50,000 acres. (Photo: Chopper 2/KATU)

High winds Thursday made the jobs of firefighters that more difficult as they battled to contain the three-day-old Substation Fire, which is now considered the nation’s No. 1 wildfire priority.

But that means more resources are arriving to help the more than 200 firefighters already working the lines of the 50,000-acre fire that has killed one person, destroyed structures and burned through crops, grass and forestland.

Seventy-three fire agencies across the state of Oregon are now battling the blaze.

But even with the 35 mph to 40 mph winds that pushed the fire to grow at the north and south ends of the fire, Stefan Myers, with the Oregon State Fire Marshal’s Office, said fire crews kept the fire at 50,000 acres.

About 900 homes are still under Level 2 (Get Set) or Level 3 (Leave Now) evacuation orders. As of Thursday afternoon, Moro and Grass Valley were in Level 3 evacuation zones. Biggs Junction, Wasco and Kent were under Level 2 evacuation orders.

Various aircraft continued to fight the fire from above, including helicopters and air tankers.

“The benefit of this diverse air support is that they can provide heavy drops of the canyons and the smaller aircraft can provide more precision strikes in the canyon,” said Myers.

First the first time, bulldozers joined in the battle to help contain the fire Thursday, officials said.

The cause of the fire is still under investigation. Wasco County Sheriff Lane McGill said he couldn’t divulge any information about the criminal investigation for fear of compromising it. But the sheriff's office said it was "incendiary in nature." State police have set up a tip line for anyone who knows anything about how the fire started. That number is 800-452-7888.

The sheriff’s office Thursday also identified the man who died in the fire. John Ruby, 64, a longtime resident of Wasco County, was working to protect his neighbor’s property with a tractor when he succumbed to the fire.

Earlier in the day, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown also held a news conference. She said, although the Substation Fire is growing quickly, it’s important to remember there are other fires burning across the state. Many of them were caused by lightning this weekend.

Brown said fire season is starting three to four weeks earlier than it did last year.

The U.S. Air Force and National Guard are assisting firefighters’ efforts to contain the Substation Fire.

After Brown declared a state of emergency Wednesday, the Oregon State Fire Marshal began speaking to agencies in California and Washington to seek assistance.

The Substation Fire started southeast of The Dalles Tuesday afternoon.

Residents displaced by the fire can find shelter at The Dalles Middle School at 1100 E. 12th Street in The Dalles. It has been set up by the Red Cross.

The Mid-Columbia Center for Living has a hotline available for anyone who needs someone to talk with. That number is 1-888-877-9147.

Highways 97, 30 and 206 were shut down for a short time Thursday. The highway closures have been intermittent. Driver's can check TripCheck for the latest road information. The Oregon Department of Transportation said there is no fuel available on Highway 97 north of Madras.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has authorized federal funds to help with the firefighting costs. The agency determined enough homes were at risk. It also considered threats to major transmission lines that supply power to Oregon and California.

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