UPDATE (6:30 a.m., Monday, July 23) — Fire officials say crews have made significant progress fighting the Substation Fire burning near The Dalles, Oregon, which was 92 percent contained, burning just under 80,000 acres as of Sunday evening. All evacuation levels have been reduced to a Level 1 (be ready).
The Substation Fire, the nation’s top priority wildfire, is threatening farmland in Wasco and Sherman Counties in time for wheat harvest season. Wheat is the area’s top export commodity, and current statistics estimate nearly half of the crop of Wasco County may have been lost to the fire. The fire has claimed one life.
“We feel like we’re in a good place on this fire,” said Lt. Damon Simmons with the Oregon State Fire Marshal’s Office. “We’re going to be able to free up some of these crews to go fight other fires, but we’re going to be stretched thin this summer.”
It’s just the beginning of what officials say will be a long wildfire season, and attention is already turning to fires burning in Southern Oregon where Gov. Kate Brown has again invoked the Emergency Conflagration Act for several fires burning in Jackson and Josephine counties. The conflagration declaration authorizes the state fire marshal’s office to mobilize resources to help local crews battling the Garner Complex, which has burned 7,949 acres as of Sunday morning.
“A lot of the firefighters we’re demobilizing right now, they want to go and assist down south as well,” said Ian Yocum, incident commander with the Oregon State Fire Marshal’s Office.
“So morale is really high with all our firefighters and they’re ready to work,” Yocum added. “It’s going to be a long fire season for all of us.”
An investigation into the cause of the Substation Fire is ongoing, though officials have suggested the fire was human-caused.
The Wasco County Sheriff’s Office has referred to the incident as “incendiary in nature“ and say they’re conducting a criminal investigation into the matter. In fire investigations, incendiary is a technical term, meaning “a fire that is deliberately ignited under circumstances in which the person knows that the fire should not be ignited.” The term is not the same as arson.
Even Brown suggested the fire was human-caused when speaking to reporters Wednesday.
“Clearly you’re hearing that there is a likelihood of arson, so our agencies are going to help in that investigation,” Brown said at the press conference.
The sheriff’s office did not respond to questions about a timetable for the investigation, what evidence led to the “incendiary” label, or whether investigators had identified any persons of interest.