UPDATE (July 19, 8:41 a.m. PT) — One person died as a result of the Substation Fire east of The Dalles, Oregon, and county officials have called in state help in determining whether someone intentionally set the blaze.
UPDATED COVERAGE: Man died trying to protect neighboring land from Substation Fire.
The sheriff’s office said deputies located a person dead near a burned tractor Wednesday afternoon. The person appeared to have died from exposure to the fire.
The sheriff’s office is investigating the incident, but suspects the person was trying to create a fire line to slow the blaze.
The person’s death adds more consequence to the question of whether this fire was human-caused. As of Thursday morning, officials had not determined what started the blaze. The Bonneville Power Administration stated on its social media that the fire began near its Celilo Converter Station. But BPA also pointed out that it did not start on its property and “no BPA assets have been destroyed by the fire.”
At a press briefing Thursday morning, Gov. Kate Brown said the Wasco County sheriff has asked for state help investigating the cause of a blaze.
“We’re going to support those efforts,” she told reporters. “Clearly you’re hearing that there is a likelihood of arson, so our agencies are going to help in that investigation.”
The Substation Fire ignited Tuesday, growing rapidly overnight. It had burned more than 50,000 acres as of Thursday morning, and closed a section of Highway 97 between Biggs Junction and Madras.
Officials expanded Level 3 or “go now” evacuations to include the towns of Moro and Grass Valley as the fire jumped the Deschutes River and grew Wednesday. Wasco was upgraded to a Level 2 or “be set” evacuation order. Officials posted the full list of evacuations to Facebook:
Red Cross opened a shelter at The Dalles Middle School for people displaced by the fire.
Other shelters opened their doors to house animals. Home at Last Humane Society in The Dalles will house displaced dogs free of charge and Fort Dalles Riders Club can accommodate large livestock.
The fire has been particularly devastating for wheat farmers in the area. Wheat makes up more than 90 percent of the farmland in Sherman County, making it one of the largest wheat producing areas in Oregon.
Charla Kozelisky, a clerk at Kramer’s Market in Dufur, Oregon, said farmers worked frantically through the night to protect their crops, which were nearing harvest.
“And you’re just watching it burn up,” Kozelisky said. “There’s nothing they could do. It’s devastating.”
In Wasco, Mayor Carol MacKenzie said many of the town’s fields were either fallow or bare after last year’s harvest, which she thinks will help protect the town.
But wind has pushed the fire south and east toward Moro where risk might be higher, MacKenzie said.
“We’re at the mercy of the wind,” she said.
The Substation Fire also gobbled up the historic Charles Nelson House, a popular photography destination near Dufur.
Brown on Wednesday declared a statewide fire emergency, making air and ground forces available from the Oregon National Guard and the Oregon Department of Forestry.
This story will be updated. Ericka Cruz Guevarra, Amelia Templeton and Ryan Haas contributed to this report.