Tractor operator dies trying to suppress Oregon wildfire

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) - A tractor operator who was killed in a wildfire that scorched 70 square miles (181 kilometers) in little more than 24 hours in the Pacific Northwest appears to have died trying to restrain it, police said.

The blaze east of Portland, Oregon, and near the city of The Dalles started Tuesday and spread into a rural farming area with vast wheat fields.

Authorities found one person dead Wednesday near a burned-out tractor. The person was likely trying to use the heavy farm machinery to create a fire break to hold back flames, the Wasco County Sheriff's Office said.

Dozens of homes have been evacuated because of the conflagration about 80 miles (130 kilometers) east of Portland.

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown declared a state of emergency Wednesday, marking the unofficial start to a Pacific Northwest Fire season that's expected to be worse than normal.

Firefighters crept into the fields in water trucks and attempted to douse the leading edges of the fire from behind as it burned through acres of wheat, with everything behind the flames charred black.

The news of the fatality also came as authorities on Wednesday ordered additional mandatory evacuations in the small communities of Moro and Grass Valley and closed U.S. Route 97 in that area. Grass Valley's evacuation was eased Wednesday night as firefighters focused on saving structures in that area, Substation fire spokesman Stefan Myers said.

Oregon's fires come as other states across the American West, including California and Colorado, have struggled with massive blazes that have torn through land gripped by drought.

"In Oregon, very low humidity, high temperatures and winds gusting up to 30 mph (48 kph) made the flames explosive in thin grasses and wheat fields," said Robin DeMario, a spokeswoman for the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center.

"These light fuels go up very quickly," DeMario said. "The grassy stalks are very dry, they have lost the moisture in those stalks, and so if a fire start begins, we call it 'flashy fuels' because it burns very fast and very hot."

The Columbia River Gorge separating Oregon and Washington is still recovering from a wildfire last year that scorched 75 square miles (194 square kilometers), ravaged popular hiking trails and marred stunning vistas.

It burned in the western end that's home to the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, which attracts more than 3 million tourists a year and holds North America's largest concentration of waterfalls.

The landscape to the east along the river transitions to grasslands and flat, open vistas dotted with wheat fields - where the fire burned Wednesday.

Elsewhere in the state, several fires started by lightning over the weekend burned as temperatures flirted with triple digits.

One fire in southern Oregon forced the evacuation of two houses and 33 more homeowners prepared to flee Wednesday after the flames spread near the California border.

Another blaze about 200 miles (322 kilometers) east of Portland was tamped down after farmers and ranchers used their heavy equipment to help create lines to contain the flames. Some fences and horse corrals burned, but no homes were lost, said Melissa Ross, Morrow County Sheriff's Office spokeswoman.

"In some instances, it was very close (and) if not for all those who turned out to help, the end of this story would have been very different," she said.

Elsewhere in the Pacific Northwest, a small fire near Spokane Valley, Washington, prompted evacuation notices for 700 homes Tuesday night. Most were able to return home Wednesday. Several homes caught fire, Spokane Valley Fire Department spokeswoman Melanie Rose said. Two structures were destroyed, officials said.

In California, a deadly forest fire was spreading west of Yosemite National Park, keeping a key route into the park shut down during tourist season and forcing communities to evacuate. But the park's trails, campgrounds, restaurants and lodges are open, though smoke is polluting the air and limiting visibility.

More than 1,800 firefighters are battling the blaze that started Friday and now spans 27 square miles (70 square kilometers), the U.S. Forest Service said.

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Associated Press writers Gene Johnson and Lisa Baumann in Seattle, Nick Geranios in Spokane, Washington, and Steven DuBois in Portland and Olga R. Rodriguez in San Francisco contributed to this report.

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