A man killed in an Oregon wildfire appears to have been trying to protect his neighbor’s property from flames sweeping through vast wheat fields in a rural farming area, authorities said Thursday.
John Ruby, 64, was found near a burned-out tractor, and investigators believe he was attempting to clear a strip of land to prevent the flames from spreading. Desperate farmers tried to salvage their crops during harvest season as the blaze ignited Tuesday and scorched nearly 80 square miles (207 square kilometers).
Firefighters crept into the fields in water trucks and tried to douse the leading edges of the fire from behind as it burned through acres of wheat east of Portland.
It marked the unofficial start to the Pacific Northwest wildfire season that’s expected to be worse than normal because of drought and above-average temperatures.
Other states across the American West, including California and Colorado, have struggled with massive blazes that have torn through land gripped by drought.
Oregon Gov. Kate Brown said the deadly fire may have been intentionally set, and state investigators will help with the investigation. She also has declared an emergency.
Authorities have told residents of 900 homes in small communities to evacuate or be ready to go. Though winds are hampering firefighting efforts, cool temperatures slowed the blaze’s growth overnight.
The blaze near the city of The Dalles is burning in the eastern end of the Columbia River Gorge where grasslands and flat, open vistas dotted with wheat fields make up the landscape.
The gorge separating Oregon and Washington is still recovering from a wildfire last year that scorched 75 square miles (194 square kilometers), ravaged popular hiking trails and marred stunning vistas.
That fire burned in the western end that’s home to the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, which attracts more than 3 million tourists a year and holds North America’s largest concentration of waterfalls.
Several fires ignited by lightning over the weekend were burning in other areas of Oregon.
A fire in southern Oregon forced the evacuation of two houses and other homeowners prepared to flee Wednesday after the flames spread near the California border.
Another blaze about 200 miles (322 kilometers) 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, several houses caught fire near Spokane Valley, Washington, and two structures burned but most people were back home, authorities said.
In California, a forest fire that killed a firefighter over the weekend kept sending smoke into nearby Yosemite National Park. A key route into the park has been shut down for several days but trails, campgrounds, restaurants and lodges are open. No buildings have burned but communities have evacuated as flames grew to nearly 33 square miles (86 square kilometers).
Associated Press writers Gene Johnson and Lisa Baumann in Seattle, Nick Geranios in Spokane, Washington, and Steven DuBois in Portland contributed to this report.