Just ahead of a weather pattern that could bring lightning and high winds to an already parched portion of Northeast Oregon, the U.S. Forest Service looked at the Umatilla National Forest and saw a tinderbox.
Now it’s telling the public to recreate elsewhere as hazardous conditions continue.
On July 16, the agency announced it was temporarily closing all 1.4 million acres of forestland in order to protect the public as well as firefighters, who are battling blazes in that area and responding to new smoke reports.
Hot temperatures combined with a lack of rainfall that started in spring have challenged crews trying to contain the Lick Creek and Green Ridge fires, which are burning just across the Oregon-Washington border northeast of Walla Walla.
On top of that, the Elbow Creek Fire, discovered July 15 in Wallowa County, continues to grow rapidly. That blaze is now over 16,000 acres and only 10% contained, triggering Level 3: Go Now evacuations for people living in and around the small towns of Eden Bench and Troy.
Then yesterday, the National Weather service issued a red flag warning for a large swath of Eastern Oregon, warning of the potential for abundant lightning and strong gusts—the precise recipe to start more fires and spread those already on the ground.
A full closure means the public is prohibited from entering the Umatilla National Forest, including roads, trails and campgrounds. Access to county, state and federal roadways will remain open. The U.S. Forest Service has not said when it will lift the order.
The Oregon State Parks and Recreation Department also stated last week that its facilities near the Umatilla National Forest are still accessible. That means you can camp and hike at Emigrant Springs State Heritage Area near Pendleton, Red Bridge State Wayside, and Hilgard Junction State Park by La Grande, as well as the Ukiah-Dale Forest State Scenic Corridor.
Rangers want to remind visitors to check the State Parks website to see whether there are open-flame restrictions at any park they intend to visit. Currently, most sites in Oregon do not allow campfires due to extreme drought and fire danger.