Falling tree kills firefighter in Central Oregon

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) A falling tree killed a firefighter and injured another Thursday as lightning started wildfires in Central Oregon.

The contract firefighters were part of a crew removing hazardous trees during the initial attack on a wildfire started by lightning late Wednesday near Sisters, Ore., said Jean Nelson-Dean, spokeswoman for the Deschutes National Forest. Rappel crews responded and called for an ambulance.

John Hammack, 59, died at the scene, according to his granddaughter.

"He was a lot of things, one of the strongest men around. He was strong-willed, never sugar-coated anything, he told like it was," said Taylie Waite, Hammack's granddaughter.

She said he did a lot of rodeo work and came from a family of loggers.

Norman Crawford, 45, was hit in the shoulder. He was able to walk and was taken by the ambulance to a hospital in Bend, Ore.

Hammack is from Redmond, Ore. and Crawford is from Sisters, Ore.

"My thoughts and deepest condolences go out to the family of John Hammack," Gov. John Kitzhaber said. "All across Oregon, thousands of men and women are doing difficult and dangerous work to protect their fellow citizens. This is a tough loss for Oregon, and with our state experiencing the most severe wildfire conditions in years, all first responders deserve our gratitude, our appreciation, and our support."

Both men worked for R&K Water Services out of Bonney Lake, Wash., Nelson-Dean said.

The Deschutes County Sheriff's Office was investigating the incident.

According to the sheriff's office, it wasn't safe for crews to bring Hammack's body out of the wilderness Thursday. They'll have to wait until Friday. But someone will be close to him all night long.

"As long as he is there, one of our staff, and one of the forest service staff, will be there. We will not leave him there alone, we will be with him at all times," said Lt. Scott Shelton of the Deschutes County Sheriff's Office. "We honor him and we respect him, and we respect what he does, and we will never leave anyone alone."

Twenty-seven wilderness firefighters have died in the line of duty in the U.S. this year, most of them in an Arizona fire that killed 19, including a man originally from West Linn.

The death is the first in Oregon, but the second blamed on snags or tree falls. A firefighter in California died for the same reason in June.

Hammack was among more than 4,000 battling active blazes that are burning on more than 60 square miles in Oregon.

The National Interagency Fire Center earlier this week listed the Northwest as its highest priority, giving Oregon and Washington the first shot at crews and equipment as they become available.

That's typical for this time of year because the Northwest has a later fire season late July and August than most of the other 10 regions. The fire season tends to start in the Southeast and shift to the Southwest before migrating north to Northern California and the Pacific Northwest.

Nationally, the wildfire season has been relatively mild this year, with the total number of fires and the area burned running at about 60 percent of the 10-year average.

The Pacific Northwest hopes to follow the trend, but the fire center on Thursday released its fire outlook for August, and the picture is not pretty because of the dry land.

"We paint the areas that are predicted to be most active in red, and almost all of Oregon is painted red for August," said Don Smurthwaite, a fire center spokesman based in Boise. "The fire danger is real in Oregon."

The wild card is lightning.

National Weather Service meteorologist Joe Solomon in Pendleton said 800 strikes were recorded overnight, most of them Thursday morning.

He said at least that many more can be expected Thursday as thunderstorms move through central, north-central and far eastern Oregon. The storms are also expected to bring spotty rains totaling a quarter of an inch or more.

About 40 small fires were reported along the Cascade crest and Central Oregon.

There are eight wildfires considered major that arte burning in the Pacific Northwest, mostly in Oregon.

Most attention has gone to the Douglas Complex wildfires in southwest Oregon, which were started by lightning last week and have combined to scorch about 45 square miles.

No houses have burned, but nearly 500 are threatened. People in more than 100 homes have been advised to evacuate, and the Oregon National Guard is providing aircraft and manpower after Gov. John Kitzhaber declared a state of emergency in Douglas and Josephine counties.