▶️ ‘We cannot get complacent’: Lightning a reminder of Central Oregon fire risk

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If you’ve lived in Central Oregon for a long time, Saturday’s thunder, lightning and hail storm probably wasn’t a huge surprise. 

But as we enter fire season, those storms create a greater risk for flames to make an entrance. 

One of the several hundred lightning strikes that fell across the region touched down on NE Lafayette Ave. in east Bend, right next to the Clembury home. 

“I was inside and heard just the loudest thunder crack that you can imagine hearing from inside the house, and I was so startled,” Michele Clembury said.

Her husband was outside in the yard trying to save their plants from the downpour of rain and hail when it happened.

“He pointed up at the tree and said I just saw lightning strike the tree, and I looked over and there was a big stripe on the tree,” she added. “The bark just flew away in a shower.” 

Their power also went out roughly 20 minutes later, but was restored at around 9 p.m. 

Various other trees in town showed evidence of strikes, including one across the street from Worthy Brewing. Its trunk was all but stripped of bark. 

“This was a very normal lightning storm for us here in Central Oregon,” said Kassidy Kern, a Fire Communications Specialist with the U.S. Forest Service. “It came with a lot of precipitation, which was really wonderful.”

The rain and hail didn’t stop 16 small starts from popping up across the Deschutes and Ochoco National Forests, Prineville BLM lands, and Crooked River National Grassland. 

There were more than 40 firefighters working on putting out starts on Sunday, but most had finished the job by Monday afternoon. 

“We have fewer firefighters out today because they’ve been able to wrap up those fires and keep them small, which is a really important thing,” Kern added. “Over 90% of the fires that occur across public lands are put out within the first 36 to 72 hours and that’s great news.”

The two largest fires started this weekend grew to five and seven acres, but both were put out by the rainfall before firefighters reached them. 

Despite quick extinguishing this time around, Kern said it’s no time to relax. 

“While we are experiencing some very different conditions than we have in the past several years, we have had a lot of rain and a lot of precipitation and everything is beautiful and green, we cannot get complacent about prevention,” she said. 

“We fully anticipate picking up some holdover fires, fires that may have hit with a lightning strike and then just sat there and cooked. And then with a little heat and some wind, they’re going to start cooking. So that’s why we have those lookouts that are our eyes on the ground, in the forest, scanning the skies.”

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Crews will monitor some of the worst-hit areas along Highway 97 and the west side of the Ochoco National Forest for those fires in the coming days. Holdover fires are a risk for up to two weeks after an initial lightning strike. 

Kern said the storm was a signal that fire season is starting and that households should get prepared. 

“One of the ways we prepare for that is to have a to-go bag that’s going to have your prescriptions, your photos, your important papers, any pet medication or medication for you. Certain things that are irreplaceable, just put that in a bag with a couple of days of clothing by your door,” she said. “99.9% of the time you’re never going to need it, and in October you’re going to take it down and put everything away again. 

“Everyone in Central Oregon should have a to-go bag ready to go, so that if you do get a call that you’re suddenly under an evacuation level, all you need to do is pick that bag up, walk you and your family out the door and be safe.”

For the Clemburys, it’s a relief knowing they avoided greater damage for the time being. 

“I am really just happy that the tree didn’t come down or the power lines come down, because the power lines are right here,” Michele said. “It could’ve been a whole lot worse.”

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