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Tractor operator dies fighting Oregon wildfire

Firefighters crept into the fields in water trucks and attempted to douse the leading edges of the fire from behind as it burned through acres of wheat.

By GILLIAN FLACCUS

Associated Press

Published on July 19, 2018 9:18AM

Last changed on July 19, 2018 3:59PM

A fast-moving fire continues to rage across Wasco County southeast of The Dalles, Ore.

Associated Press

A fast-moving fire continues to rage across Wasco County southeast of The Dalles, Ore.

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PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — A tractor operator who was killed in a wildfire that scorched 70 square miles in little more than 24 hours in the Pacific Northwest appears to have died trying to fight it, police said.

The Wasco County Sheriff’s Office identified the victim Thursday morning as John Ruby, 64, a longtime resident and local farmer.

The blaze near the city of The Dalles started Tuesday and spread into a rural farming area with vast wheat fields.

Authorities found Ruby dead Wednesday near a burned tractor. He was likely trying to use the heavy farm machinery to create a fire break to hold back flames, the Wasco County Sheriff’s Office said.

Dozens of homes have been evacuated because of the fire about 80 miles east of Portland.

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown declared a state of emergency Wednesday, marking the unofficial start to a Pacific Northwest Fire season that’s expected to be worse than normal.

Firefighters moved into the fields in water trucks and attempted to douse the leading edges of the fire from behind as it burned through acres of wheat, with everything behind the flames charred black.

The news of the fatality also came as authorities on Wednesday ordered additional mandatory evacuations in the small communities of Moro and Grass Valley and closed U.S. Route 97 in that area. Grass Valley’s evacuation was eased Wednesday night as firefighters focused on saving structures in that area, Substation fire spokesman Stefan Myers said.

Oregon’s fires come as other states across the American West, including California and Colorado, have struggled with massive blazes that have torn through land gripped by drought.

“In Oregon, very low humidity, high temperatures and winds gusting up to 30 mph made the flames explosive in thin grasses and wheat fields,” said Robin DeMario, a spokeswoman for the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center.

“These light fuels go up very quickly,” DeMario said. “The grassy stalks are very dry, they have lost the moisture in those stalks, and so if a fire start begins, we call it ‘flashy fuels’ because it burns very fast and very hot.”

Elsewhere in the state, several fires started by lightning over the weekend burned as temperatures flirted with triple digits.

One fire in southern Oregon forced the evacuation of two houses and 33 more homeowners prepared to flee Wednesday after the flames spread near the California border.

Another blaze about 200 miles east of Portland was tamped down after farmers and ranchers used their heavy equipment to help create lines to contain the flames. Some fences and horse corrals burned, but no homes were lost, said Melissa Ross, Morrow County Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman.

“In some instances, it was very close (and) if not for all those who turned out to help, the end of this story would have been very different,” she said.

Elsewhere in the Pacific Northwest, a small fire near Spokane Valley, Wash., prompted evacuation notices for 700 homes Tuesday night. Most were able to return home Wednesday. Several homes caught fire, Spokane Valley Fire Department spokeswoman Melanie Rose said. Two structures were destroyed, officials said.

In California, a deadly forest fire was spreading west of Yosemite National Park, keeping a key route into the park shut down during tourist season and forcing communities to evacuate. But the park’s trails, campgrounds, restaurants and lodges are open, though smoke is polluting the air and limiting visibility.

More than 1,800 firefighters are battling the blaze that started Friday and now spans 27 square miles, the U.S. Forest Service said.



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