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Lightning storm sparks several fires in, near Columbia County

Forestry officials scanning woodlands for fire signs; fire chief's barn burns

Photo Credit: SCAPPOOSE RURAL FIRE DISTRICT - A barn located on Wikstron Road on property owned by Scappoose Rural Fire District Chief Michael Greisen burns in the distance. A nearby fir tree was struck by lightning, causing a fire that spread to the barn. A lightning storm early Friday morning that passed over parts of northwest Oregon has sparked several fires in densely forested areas in the region where Columbia County’s border aligns with Washington and Multnomah counties’.

And with the past week of hot, dry weather and more of the same in the forecast, additional fires could flare up over the coming days.

In one instance, lightning struck a tree adjacent to a barn on farmland located on Wikstrom Road in Scappoose that is owned by Mike Greisen, chief for Scappoose Rural Fire District, resulting in a fire that spread from the tree to the barn.

“There is a big fir tree next to a barn the chief owns, and lightning cascaded down the tree and contacted with the structure and set it on fire,” said Jeff Pricher, division chief for Scappoose Rural Fire District.

The fire fully engulfed the barn, Pricher said.

“Luckily there was nothing in the barn, so it was just the structure,” he said.

A spokeswoman at the fire district said the chief discovered the blaze only after he had returned home after chasing other lightning strikes in the area, often in thick, forested areas with limited access. The activity log for the fire district shows it responded to multiple lightning-caused fires in forested areas. Many were small and quickly extinguished, with others reported to the Oregon Department of Forestry. The fires were reported near Dixie Mountain Road, Raymond Creek Road and Otto Miller Road, according to a Friday afternoon release from the district.

More than 800 cloud-to-ground lightning strikes were recorded for the northwest Oregon and southwest Washington area between Thursday night and early Friday morning, according to the U.S. National Weather Service. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management reported as many as 345 lightning strikes in the Scappoose area, according to a the Scappoose fire district release.

Karen Simonton, an office coordinator for ODF in the Columbia City field office, said there were three small forest fires the department had been tracking, and that one has already been extinguished. The other two are in the Dutch Canyon area, in neighboring Washington County, and are being monitored. None, so far, have materialized in Columbia County, she said.

“There is difficulty getting to them because they are off the beaten track,” Simonton said of the Dutch Canyon-area fires. She said the department has two engines in the field searching for signs of fire, with more engines slated to join the hunt later today. She said it is also likely the department will dispatch an airplane for aerial reconnaissance.

With forecasts for dry conditions and temperatures in the mid- to upper-80s for the coming week, fire and forestry officials said there is a real potential for “holdover” fires, or fires that lay dormant for several days before flaring up.

“There’s a good chance we’ll see fires over the coming days with the number of lightning strikes we had,” Pricher said. He said there are already several smoke trails his department is tracking. “There’s a lot of fuel up there.”

Simonton pointed out that little moisture accompanied the lightning strikes, and said residents in rural areas should be alert to signs of fire in fields and forested areas and to call 911 in case of an emergency.

Earlier, on Thursday, July 31, ODF elevated its fire precaution level for lands in northwest Oregon to Level 2, which imposes restrictions on the use of power-driven machinery used in forest operations between 1 p.m and 8 p.m.