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Smoke rises from the Marion Fire in the Mount Jefferson Wilderness Area in northeast Linn County. 

Lightning believed to have struck a tree more than a week ago is being blamed for starting a 121-acre forest fire about one-quarter mile south of Marion Lake in the Mount Jefferson Wilderness over the weekend.

The fire is in stands of older Douglas fir and mixed timber on the Detroit Ranger District of the Willamette National Forest in the far northeast corner of Linn County, about 82 miles east of Albany.

Detroit District Ranger Grady McMahan said the area experienced lightning a week to a week and a half ago.

The fire, which started in a tree, was spotted on Friday and took off on Saturday.

McMahan said the cool weather that preceded the extremely hot weather of last week probably kept the fire in check, smoldering, before igniting over the weekend.

Although the U.S. Forest Service policy is to allow fires to burn within wilderness areas, firefighting crews jumped on this fire due to weather conditions, the fact that the blaze comes early in the fire season and that it's burning near privately owned forest resources.

McMahan Marion Forks Investment owns timberland about one mile from the fire.

 “We have about 100 people and three helicopters,” McMahan said.

Personnel included rapellers, two hotshot crews, three hand crews and three large helicopters.

McMahan said the fire is about 300 feet from Marion Lake, which makes water access and delivery extremely quick, allowing lots of water to be dropped.

McMahan said the fire was about 50 percent contained about noon Monday; the hope was that it would be 100 percent contained by Monday evening.

Contained means fire lines are built all around the blaze, even though the fire remains burning inside the perimeter.

“We may do some burning inside the containment so we don’t get a big burn again as the weather gets hot and it gets drier in August,” McMahan said. “This should help it finish up sooner.”

McMahan said the fire will continue to smolder for some time, especially since there is no rainfall in sight.

According to incident commander Chad Calderwood, the difficult conditions firefighters are facing on the ground are making suppression efforts slow going.

“There is a lot of large, down wood and snags from a previous fire in the area.” Calderwood said in a press release from the Willamette National Forest. “Firefighters are taking it slow and keeping safety as their number one priority. Luckily, fire activity is remaining moderate at this time."

Linn County Commissioner Will Tucker said he agreed with the Forest Service’s decision to attack the fire, even though it’s in a wilderness area.

“This has been my concern in the past,” Tucker said, talking about the government’s hands-off policy regarding fires in wilderness areas. “In this case, they brought in the appropriate resources and they have done a good job.”

Smoke from the fire may continue to be visible from the Bend area as well as the west side of the Cascades this week.

The Forest Service is advising visitors to use caution when traveling on Highway 22 in the Marion Forks area due to increased fire traffic, and to respect the temporary flight restriction that has been established around the fire.

Sweet Home fire

Meanwhile, firefighters got a good jump on a 2-acre fire reported Monday morning on the Sweet Home Ranger District, according to District Ranger Cindy Glick.

Glick said staff from the Oregon Department of Forestry spotted the fire and notified the Forest Service. The cause of the fire is unknown.

Glick said the fire is on Forest Service property about three-quarters of a mile north of the Middle Santiam Wilderness in the Quartzville area. It’s about 25 miles northeast of Sweet Home.

“It was smoking this morning, but we’re hitting it hard with helicopter drops and one retardant drop,” Glick said.

Glick said a hand crew was already on the ground and another was on its way.

Glick said the Oregon Department of Forestry was going to open up a closed road, No. 1142, by brushing it and running a dozer down it to get an engine and firefighting crews closer to the fire.

“Our people are also out patrolling the McQuade Creek Trail in case there are any working miners up there,” Glick said. “It’s not closed, but it could be in the near future. It’s a pretty low-use trail.”

Glick hoped to have the fire contained on Monday with mop-up on Tuesday.

Craig Pettinger of the Oregon Department of Forestry’s Sweet Home Unit said the smoke was detected on a camera based at Cougar Mountain, about five miles away.

“It gave us a really good look at it,” he said.

Pettinger said the Forest Service jumped into action.

“We reported it at 8 a.m., their lookout went up and by noon they had rapellers, helicopters dropping water and a retardant drop by noon,” Pettinger said. “As of noon, we couldn’t see smoke from the camera view. They really went to town and did a very good job on this.”

Contact Linn County reporter Alex Paul at 541-812-6114.

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