Joseph Canyon fire explodes in Northeast Oregon, Southeast Washington

By Emily Cureton Cook (OPB)
June 6, 2021 7:18 p.m. Updated: June 7, 2021 10:27 p.m.

A fire grew across state lines in Northeastern Oregon over the weekend, becoming the region’s largest blaze so far this year.

Fortunately, cooler temperatures and moderate winds Sunday slowed the spread of the Joseph Canyon Fire, allowing firefighters to work more strategically.


“We won today,” said Andy Hayes, the incident commander trainee with the Blue Mountain Type 3 Incident Management Team said. “We didn’t win Saturday (when higher winds challenged firefighters), but we won today.”

The fire had tripled in size overnight Saturday, after high winds and low humidity fanned an area struck by lightning storms late last week. It continued to grow Sunday, and by Monday morning the fire swelled to around 4,000 acres.

“Extreme winds Saturday challenged air resources ... but also aided the suppression effort by pushing the active fire line back onto itself in some areas,” according to a Sunday press release from Wallowa-Whitman National Forest.

The fire reportedly ignited on Bureau of Land Management lands around the Grande Ronde and Joseph Creek Areas of Critical Environmental Concern, but soon crossed over into Washington where it burned the Nez Perce Precious Lands Wildlife Area protected by the Oregon Department of Forestry. The nearest town is Lewiston, Idaho, about 23 miles to the north. Firefighters are working to protect ecological, geological and cultural resources along with private property, rangeland and timber.


“This is probably one of the most difficult places to fight fire in Oregon,” said ODF deputy administrator Matt Howard in a press release. “Joseph Canyon is known for its extreme terrain, communications challenges, and natural hazards.”

Although containment remains at zero percent, fire spread has been limited.

Air tankers and helicopters are helping firefighters on the ground, who face steep, rugged terrain. Additional resources and successful burnout operations along the west side of Cottonwood Creek created the anchor point needed to begin establishing containment lines. Steep, rugged terrain remains the biggest challenge, as firefighter safety is always the first priority.

Fire personnel from Oregon Department of Forestry, Wallowa-Whitman National Forest, Vale Bureau of Land Management and Washington Department of Natural Resources are working cooperatively to battle the fire.

Several ranchers and permittees moved into the area to get cattle out of the fire zone, fire managers said.

In Southern Oregon, the National Weather Service issued a red flag warning Sunday for parts of Eastern Lake and Western Harney Counties, where strong, gusty winds and low humidity could easily spread more wildfire. The warning was expected to lift Sunday evening, but remains in effect until 8 p.m. Monday.

Around 10 miles southeast of the Joseph Canyon Fire, the 1,600-acre Dry Creek Fire is burning in the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area on the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest. Two hotshot crews, smoke jumpers and rappelers are working to secure a line between Downey Creek and north Cook Creek to anchor suppression efforts.

Smoke is visible in the distance behind rolling mountains.

A view of the Joseph Canyon fire on June 5, 2021.

National Wildfire Coordinating Group