A fire in remote eastern Oregon that destroyed 36 homes and was threatening 500 more on Wednesday was declared the nation’s top priority for resources.
The priority level for the fire about 150 miles east of Portland was based on the threat to homes and human life, and the closure of U.S. Highway 395, a major artery in the region, said Carol Connolly, a spokeswoman for the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center.
After starting from a lightning strike last week, the fire has burned 75 square miles, mostly in Malheur National Forest. There are 649 firefighters assigned to the blaze – one of 11 large fires burning across Oregon.
Smoke from the fires made air quality moderate to unhealthy for special groups across most of the state.
Firefighting resources were maxed out for the region, and incident commanders were releasing crews and equipment from lower priority fires to pitch in on top priority blazes, Connolly said.
With so many fire departments sending engines to protect homes from wildfires, the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department banned beach fires and campfire candles in state campgrounds.
U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell and Gov. Kate Brown were expected to visit the fire command post at Grant County Fairgrounds, where food, clothing and household goods for victims were also being handed out.
Brown planned to visit with victims while Tidwell planned to spend time with firefighters.
Oregon and Washington had 8,500 civilian personnel fighting 25 large fires, and some U.S. Army crews were being assigned to fires in eastern Washington. Talks were under way to bring in fire management personnel from Australia and New Zealand.
The Oregon State Fire Marshal’s Office said firefighters defended homes Tuesday in the Canyon Creek area south of John Day.
Some evacuation warnings were downgraded on the north end of the fire perimeter, where homes burned Friday.
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