The Falls Creek fire, which threatened some 61 homes on or near Hurricane Creek Road, is no longer recognized as a threat by the U.S. Forest Service as of the morning of Aug. 30. The fire was first reported during the early morning hours of Aug. 22 by a hiker near the confluence of Falls and National creeks.
Though the blaze never reached over 400 acres in size, it was considered a major threat because of high temperatures, low humidity and its proximity to homes and structures in the Upper Hurricane Creek Road area. As a safety precaution for firefighters and emergency services personnel, upper Hurricane Creek Road was closed to all traffic except residents, firefighting and county services personnel.
With limited resources because of the rash of high-acre fires elsewhere in the state and its location on a wilderness area, only about 30 firefighters initially responded to the blaze. Because of the fire’s proximity to homes, some regulations for fighting wildfires in wilderness areas were relaxed, allowing for the use of chainsaws as well as gasoline pumps and fire hoses placed in creeks near the blaze.
While the fire never grew substantially during any one period, the steep terrain and lack of resources allowed for slow but steady growth of the fire over the next week. After consultation with the USFS, Level 1 (get ready) evacuation notices were issued for homes and structures in the area by the Wallowa County Sheriff’s Office and emergency services personnel.
As resources became available, more firefighters, including smoke jumpers, were added to battle the blaze. Helicopters, sharing duties with the larger Grizzly Bear Complex fire in the northern section of the county, began making regular appearances at a helibase established at the Joseph airport, carrying water to both fires from the site.
The USFS initially set up their command post at the Eagle Cap District Ranger offices in Joseph before moving to the Chief Joseph Days grounds. A Type 3 Incident Command Team, led by Francis Tyler of Halfway, arrived, charged with fighting the blaze.
Tyler called the effort a “true interagency operation,” noting the close work of the USFS, Oregon Department of Forestry, Wallowa County services and the Joseph Fire Department. The JFD was entrusted with structure protection and spent about 2.5 days working with the USFS, installing pumps and sprinklers, including some belonging to the department, in areas with endangered homes.
Two public meetings were held at the Joseph Community Center to answer questions and report on firefighting progress. The second meeting, held Aug. 28, was held in response to what could have been a make-or-break event on the fire: projected high winds of up to 40 mph and possible thunderstorms on Aug. 29. Tyler and others on the fire told the public the fire was well under control, but a Level 2 evacuation notice was in effect as a “worst case scenario” response to the forecast.
Well into the evening, helicopter after helicopter flew to the fire with sloshing buckets of water in preparation for the event. The promised winds came on the following morning, increasing in intensity through the afternoon, reaching 60 mph at one point. A small amount of rain fell, but the lines held, and the fire gained few, if any, acres during the onslaught.
The fire’s back was broken.
Sunday, more rain fell and evacuation levels receded a notch. The USFS released its final daily update, noting the fire as 35 percent contained and that fire operations will ramp down over the next few days.
On the morning of Aug. 31, Wallowa County Sheriff Steve Rogers issued a statement that all evacuation notices are lifted from homes in the fire area. Upper Hurricane Creek Road is open to traffic as of Aug. 31. The cause of the fire is still under investigation.