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Brush fire spurs evacuations as warnings issued in Pacific Northwest

By Courtney Sherwood

PORTLAND Ore. (Reuters) - A growing Oregon brush fire that ballooned to 200 acres on Wednesday triggered the evacuation of seven rural homes, as blazes elsewhere in the state forced ranchers to relocate cattle and threatened to drive more people from their homes.

The so-called Rowena fire, which erupted on Tuesday in the Columbia River Gorge in northern Oregon, was threatening 70 homes by mid-morning. In addition to prompting the evacuation of seven homes, the fire also forced the closure of a section of U.S. Highway 30.   

The National Weather Service issued a "red flag warning" for northeast Oregon and southeast Washington state on Wednesday, indicating new wildfires are likely to spark and spread quickly in the region.

In Oregon alone, firefighters are battling a dozen wildfires across 90,000 acres, according to the National Wildfire Coordinating Group. Some 300 structures are threatened, numerous public lands are closed, and a major power transmission line to Idaho lies in the path of one of the fires.

The blazes come amid a West Coast fire season, which runs from mid-May to mid-October, that experts have said is exacerbated by extreme drought in California and abnormally dry conditions across Oregon, Washington and Idaho.

National Weather Service meteorologist Dan Byrd, who is monitoring a 10,500-acre complex of fires on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation dubbed the Logging Unit blazes, warned that the state could see dry lightning on Friday that could hamper firefighting efforts.

“With a high number of large fires burning in the Pacific Northwest and other parts of the country, firefighting resources are stretched thin,” Logging Unit Fire incident commander Ross Williams said in a statement. “This may result in fires growing larger and causing more damage.”

The Federal Aviation Administration told civilian pilots on Wednesday to avoid central Oregon’s Oakridge State Airport so firefighting helicopters can take priority near the 115-acre so-called Staley Complex fires.

Near the Idaho border, a 4,000-acre fire threatened the homes of 160 people in the community of Imnaha, officials said. Also in eastern Oregon, residents near the 36,000-acre South Fork Complex fire were told to prepare for possible evacuations.

Meanwhile, another eastern Oregon blaze prompted ranchers to relocate 35 cattle on Tuesday that had been grazing in Malheur National Forest. More livestock removal was underway on Wednesday, the U.S. Forest Service said.

Fire crews reported their biggest success of the week in battling the 36,700-acre Beaver fire complex, which straddles the Oregon-California line and has burned six homes but is now one-third contained.

(Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Eric Walsh)

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