Whitewater Fire closes 117,000 acres in Mount Jefferson area through eclipse

DETROIT — Just two weeks ago, the Mount Jefferson area was expected to be among Oregon's most popular places to view the total solar eclipse Aug. 21. 

But with the Whitewater Fire continuing to expand and all evidence pointing toward additional growth, U.S. Forest Service officials closed a large swath of land surrounding Oregon's second-tallest mountain beginning Monday and effective through eclipse day.

The closure includes 117,000 acres of roads, trails and mountains in and around the Mount Jefferson Wilderness. It includes popular hiking destinations Jefferson Park, Pamelia Lake and the Pacific Crest Trail for about 30 miles.

Tens of thousands were expected to visit the Jefferson and Detroit Lake areas because they are smack in the middle of the eclipse's path of totality.

“We understand this is a disappointment to those who looked forward to experiencing the eclipse in this area,"  Forest Supervisor Tracy Beck said in a news release. "Unfortunately, the risk is too great, and our highest responsibility must be visitor safety."

The Whitewater Fire grew to 5,515 acres by Monday and is expected to continue growing, perhaps to the north or southwest, officials said.

A forecast that includes the possibility of thunderstorms this week only adds to the uncertainty.

"We're not expecting much lightning, which is good," Whitewater Fire spokeswoman Jeanne Klein said. "The biggest concern is gusty winds that could twist the fire any which way." 

Fire officials said there is little danger of the fire ever reaching nearby Detroit. Instead, they're focused on keeping the blaze from impacting the Breitenbush community, Marion Forks and State Highway 22. All are within 3 to 5 miles of the fire line.

Total personnel on the fire has almost doubled to 619 with 18 crews and multiple pieces of heavy machinery building containment lines around the blaze.

Scooper planes delivering water to the fire will occasionally close sections of Detroit Lake.

Still, the day's biggest news was the closure, which stretches from the top of Mount Jefferson Wilderness near Breitenbush Lake, along Highway 22, Forest Service Road 46 and south to Minto Pass.  

The cause of the fire is a month-old lightning strike in the Whitewater Creek area, Marcus Kauffman said. He said lightning struck a tree about 100 yards off Whitewater Trail and smoldered for weeks. Eventually, the tree fell down and ignited a pile of brush and timber.

Click here for a detailed breakdown and maps of the closure.

Zach Urness has been an outdoors writer, photographer and videographer in Oregon for nine years. He is the author of the book “Hiking Southern Oregon” and can be reached at zurness@StatesmanJournal.com or (503) 399-6801. Find him on Twitter at @ZachsORoutdoors.

© 2017 KGW-TV


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