A rapidly spreading grass fire in Umatilla threatened residential areas, forced evacuations and knocked out power for hours, but was contained before it could inflict significant damage on the evening of Monday, Sept. 7.

Steven Potts, the chief of the Umatilla Rural Fire Protection District, said the district got a call of a grass fire near the intersection of Highway 395 and U.S. Route 730 at 5 p.m.

Strong winds pushed the fire west, eventually leading the blaze to jump Interstate 82 and threaten homes in the area. Potts said several neighborhoods were evacuated as the fire spread, although he knew of no injuries and the only structure that was lost was a vacant house that had long been abandoned.

By 6 p.m., high winds and blowing smoke closed both lanes of Interstate 82 between Interstate 84 and Umatilla, along with sections of Highway 395 and Highway 730.

According to the National Weather Service in Pendleton, 6 p.m. is also when wind gusts peaked in the area at about 51 miles per hour.

Potts said fire crews began containing the fire around 8:30 p.m. and residents were soon allowed to return to their homes. He added that firefighters were still on-site Tuesday, Sept. 8, to address hot spots and flareups. Potts estimated the fire burned a total of 200 acres.

According to Potts, the gusty conditions across the region contributed to the fire’s initial burst of growth. At one point, Potts said, he was driving near the fire on Power City Road when he noticed the fire was doing something he hadn’t seen in his more than 30 years of firefighting experience.

“It was moving faster than I could drive,” he said.

The nature of the fire provoked a regional firefighting response: Potts said several fire departments answered the mutual aid call, including the fire departments and districts in Hermiston, Echo, Pendleton, Heppner, Boardman, Irrigon and Ione. In total, Potts said 60 firefighting personnel were on the scene.

A news release from the fire district on Sept. 9 stated the cause appeared to be power lines that had been knocked down by wind in the area of Highway 730 and Scaplehorn Road.

After over five hours of closures, the highways reopened around 11:15 p.m. and a spokesperson for the Oregon Department of Transportation confirmed no additional closures were in effect the morning of Sept. 8.

When Angie Smith returned to her home on the top of Powerline Road in Umatilla on the morning of Sept. 8, she was afraid there would be nothing left.

On Monday night, her sister had called to let her know that there was a fire near her.

She looked outside and saw the orange glow of flames through the smoky haze outside.

“The flames came right up the hill, right up toward my house,” she said. “It was horrible. A cop came to get me and I had about two minutes to leave.”

As the officer urged her to hurry, she grabbed her cat, her dog, her safe with important papers and a handful of photos and fled to Umatilla High School, where the school was offering restrooms, water and internet access to evacuees.

Eventually she found a road between Umatilla and Hermiston that wasn’t closed and headed toward her sister’s house, where she spent the night. When she dropped by Walmart to pick up some kitty litter, she realized she had left her mask at home in her haste to evacuate.

“I forgot about the COVID thing when I was doing that,” she said.

Smith said when she returned the next morning she could see scorch marks right up to the edge of the road opposite her house, and felt extremely grateful for the fire departments that protected the home she just had built and moved into in March.

No one ended up needing to sleep overnight at Umatilla High School after evacuation orders began lifting at 9:30 p.m., but Superintendent Heidi Sipe said there were about 10 people who hung out inside the school and more who stayed in the parking lot with their pets for a few hours that evening.

“They were at least able to connect to Wi-Fi and do what they needed to do during that period of waiting,” she said.

Sipe was in Spokane on the evening of Sept. 7 preparing to head home, when her son called to tell her he had just called 911 about a fire near their home. In short order, the fire had jumped across the highway and begun to spread. She said she felt a little helpless trying to coordinate opening the school from afar, but she was grateful for staff, first responders and residents who jumped into action to fight the fire and take care of other logistics.

“We talk about how wonderful it is in a small town, how everyone comes together, and listening to the scanner I was seeing that,” she said.

While the fire was under control on Tuesday morning, Sept. 8, the repercussions remained for many Umatilla students who still did not have internet access to start their second week of distance learning.

According to a Facebook post by Eastern Oregon Telecom, fiber in the McNary area was “destroyed” and some towers were not working, knocking out internet to downtown Umatilla, the South Hill CMTS, the Umatilla River Pole, Christy Tower and connections to Washington.

The company stated it was working on the morning of Sept. 8 to reroute service, install a wireless backhaul, set up generators and make repairs to restore service as quickly as possible.

Steve Meyers, spokesman with Umatilla Electric Cooperative, stated in an email that approximately 2,500 customers were without power at the peak of the windstorm on Sept. 7, with most people impacted were those north and east of Hermiston, those along Highway 730 in Umatilla and those in the Meacham area.

Only about 140 people in scattered locations remained without power as of noon on Sept. 8, according to Meyers. Pacific Power indicated on its website that crews were assessing reports of at least 75 customers still without power in the Umatilla area as of 3 p.m.

In the meantime, Sipe said the district has been putting out social media messages and emails letting families know that while school would continue in order to provide a sense of routine for students able to log in, students who did not participate in classes while their internet was out would not be penalized for missing class or schoolwork.

“If students are able to log in, we are here and ready. If students are unable to login, please do not worry,” the message stated. “There is no need to phone/email to excuse, we know your plate is extra full today.”

Editor's note: This article was updated to include new information about the cause of the fire.

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