- Associated Press - Monday, August 17, 2015

GRANTS PASS, Ore. (AP) - Clothing, food and livestock feed poured into the eastern Oregon town of John Day to help the 26 families who lost their homes in a wind-driven wildfire.

Grant County Commissioner Boyd Britton said Monday that it is a poor county, but the people are generous. One man called to donate two truckloads of hay. In neighboring Crook County, a supermarket was sending food. Churches in nearby communities were sending clothing, bedding and household goods.

The fires were started by lightning on Tuesday, and on Friday one of them jumped containment lines and roared up a canyon south of Canyon City, driven by 40 mph winds. The fire on the Malheur National Forest has grown to more than 60 square miles and threatens more than 500 structures. About 300 firefighters were assigned to the blaze over the weekend, along with structural fire crews from around the state, and more are expected.

Curt Qual, who retired from the U.S. Forest Service, said he and his wife, Cindy, were able to get out with important papers and possessions packed in their camper, but the house was burned to the ground when they returned Saturday, likely a victim of its cedar shingle siding. Thanks to active thinning of the trees on his property, 75 percent of them survived.

“We had nine chickens, and I had to just kick open the chicken coop door and let them fend for themselves,” he said.

One of their two cats jumped out of his wife’s car as they were leaving and there was no time to look for it. When they returned, seven of the chickens had survived and the cat, named Misty, was waiting on the front steps.

“I think we’re going to change it to Lucky” Qual said.

The outpouring of compassion has been overwhelming, with free meals from local restaurants, a gift certificate from the supermarket, and U-Haul trailers rolling into town loaded with clothing, bedding and other supplies from neighboring churches and communities, Qual said.

“We’ve found a lot of good in this bad thing,” Qual said. “It’s been an emotional roller coaster. The outpouring of love and compassion and hospitality from people in this community has been overwhelming. We’ve had no want or need for anything.”

Mike Billman, a forester, said he and his wife could see the fire from their house in Canyon City on Friday, and were packing their belongings as intense south winds pushed the fire through a canyon toward the town of about 700 people. The homes that burned were scattered in the canyon. By the time the winds shifted Friday evening, the fire was on the edge of Canyon City, which is about 2 miles south of John Day.

“There’s just nothing they can do if it’s blowing that hard,” he said.

By Monday, the fire was burning most intensely in the southeastern corner in the Strawberry Mountains Wilderness, according to the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center. The fire continues to challenge firefighters because of the dry conditions, rugged terrain and afternoon winds.

There were 12 large uncontained wildfires burning in Oregon and 18 in Washington. The National Fire Preparedness Level has been at 5, the highest level, since Thursday.

South of Baker City, the improved weather helped firefighters make progress on the state’s largest wildfire. The Cornet-Windy Ridge fire has burned through more than 150 square miles and destroyed six homes. Crews on Monday continued to build containment lines around the perimeter of the fire.

Meanwhile, hundreds of evacuated residents on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation were allowed to return home Sunday as danger from a wildfire eased. Containment of the 85-square mile blaze increased to 25 percent.

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