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Twin fires set off a scramble.

Byline: Greg Bolt The Register-Guard

SANTIAM PASS - Firefighters had to fall back Wednesday against a fast-moving blaze that severed a vital link to Central Oregon, forced the evacuation of several hundred campers and diverted a presidential visit.

Highway 20 over Santiam Pass could remain closed for more than a week as one of two fires in the area turned the roadway into a flame-lined alley. Heavy smoke from the blaze prevented air tankers from making retardant runs on the 3,000-acre fire and kept President Bush from making a planned tour of the forest today near Camp Sherman a few miles east of the fire lines.

The president will still land in Redmond. But after a briefing on the fire and depending on visibility, he'll fly over it in Marine One instead, then return to discuss his Healthy Forests Initiative.

In the meantime, fire managers scrambled to get the crews and equipment they need. In addition to the Booth Fire on Santiam Pass, another 3,000 acres are ablaze in the Bear Butte Fire burning in the Mount Jefferson Wilderness and Warm Springs Indian Reservation.

The two fires are being managed together as the B and B Complex.

No structures or campgrounds are threatened by the Bear Butte Fire, but more than 700 campers at almost a dozen campgrounds and retreats had to be evacuated from the path of the Booth Fire. None had been damaged as of late Wednesday, and city firefighters from Sisters, Redmond and Bend were stationed at Suttle Lake Resort and other areas.

Bulldozers were being used to carve fire lines, but wind-borne embers were starting new blazes faster than crews could keep up. The fire was burning right to the edges of Highway 20, turning the sun to a dull ruby ember in a grey and black sky.

Flames erupted about 1 p.m. Tuesday on the north side of the highway about a mile east of Hoodoo Ski Area. The blaze initially burned east and jumped the road to the woods around Suttle and Blue lakes. It later reversed direction and crossed the Pacific Crest Trail and swung around Hogg Rock just west of the pass and north of the highway.

The fire was burning generally westward along a 6-mile corridor from Hogg Rock to Suttle Lake, with most of the flames north of the highway. The cause remains under investigation.

Weather could give firefighters a break on both fires. The forecast calls for rain over the Cascades tonight and Friday as thunderstorms move into the area.

The fire is burning in a patchwork of dense, insect-killed trees and open woods where the U.S. Forest Service has thinned trees and cleared brush as part of an effort to improve the forest's health. Flames were spotting and crowning the tops of trees in the untreated areas but stayed mostly close to the ground in the thinned stands.

Incident commander Mike Benefield said large swaths of dead and downed timber remain north of the highway and are the biggest concern. If the fire gets into that area, he said, it will be hard to stop.

"It's a real dangerous fire," he said from an observation point just east of the Santiam summit. "It's going to cover some ground before it's all done."

Fire managers are competing with big blazes in Montana and other parts of the country for firefighting resources.

Two 20-person crews working the blaze Wednesday had just come from a fire in Glacier National Park in Montana. Chris Lumbreras of Lumbreras Labor Contracting led the hired crews and said the fire will be difficult to rein in.

"It's not going to be easy to stop because everything is so dry," he said as his crew waited for a bulldozer to carve a line where flames were shooting into treetops little more than a hundred feet from the highway. "And it's getting windy. That never helps."

Highway 20 remains closed at its junction with highways 20 and 22. Eastbound cars are being diverted onto the narrow, twisting road that winds over the McKenzie Pass, known as Highway 242 or the Old McKenzie Highway.

Westbound traffic is being turned back at Camp Sherman. Highway 20 carries traffic from Salem, Albany and Eugene over the Cascades and is an important commercial link to Bend and points east.

With the highway closed, larger vehicles such as freight trucks and large campers must divert either to Highway 26 through Government Camp or Highway 58 over Willamette Pass.

Benefield said it could be some time before the highway can reopen. Fire crews have to extinguish flames burning in a corridor several miles long just east of the summit, then mop up hot spots and down snags that threaten the roadway.

The blaze will once again alter the landscape through the scenic Santiam Pass, where a spruce budworm infestation turned much of the alpine forest to a sea of dead, ghostly snags in the mid-1980s. Many of the remaining trees are now blackened matchsticks, except where flames stayed low.

In those areas, Benefield said, the forest will soon turn green again.

"A lot of this stuff is still going to be here when it's all said and done," he said.

All of the campgrounds and several church-affiliated retreats in the area from Suttle Lake east of the pass to Lost Lake on the west were evacuated and remain closed. So far, the fire is not threatening the town of Camp Sherman but was uncomfortably close to Hoodoo Ski Area, which has a new, $8 million ski lodge.

Hoodoo President Chuck Shepard said he was told by the ski area's general manager that the fire started over a hillside along the highway and not on the road's shoulder.

"It looked to him like there was oil or some kind of flammable. It came up real fast," Shepard said. He noted that the new lodge has sprinklers and is built with fire-resistant exterior materials. It also has 50,000 gallons of water stored on site with plumbing to hydrants in the area.

Shepard said his company may lose up to $100,000 in revenue from the 70 campgrounds it manages in the area. Information about campsite availability is posted on the ski area's Web site, www.hoodoo.com.

CAPTION(S):

Flames race through timber along Highway 20 east of the Santiam Pass summit, where insect damage has made many stands of trees vulnerable. "It's a real dangerous fire," said incident commander Mike Benefield. Chris Pietsch / The Register-Guard Firefighters hold a meeting Wednesday on Highway 20. It could be some time before the route is reopened. C e n t r a l O r e g o n
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Title Annotation:Fast-spreading flames close Highway 20 and force a presidential detour; Environment
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Aug 21, 2003
Words:1116
Previous Article:Bush to fly in to air forest thinning plan.
Next Article:Tax-raising bill goes to governor.


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