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Residents of 275 homes in Columbia Gorge told to evacuate as winds whip wildfire

In this Aug. 4, 2014 photo, smoke from several Oregon wildfires settled over a Medford, Ore., setting sun. Cooler temperatures and scattered showers helped firefighters hold the line on the Oregon Gulch fire in the Siskiyou Mountains straddling the Oregon-California border. (AP Photo/The Medford Mail Tribune, Bob Pennell)

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In this Aug. 4, 2014 photo, smoke from several Oregon wildfires settled over a Medford, Ore., setting sun. Cooler temperatures and scattered showers helped firefighters hold the line on the Oregon Gulch fire in the Siskiyou Mountains straddling the Oregon-California border. (AP Photo/The Medford Mail Tribune, Bob Pennell)

PORTLAND, Ore. - A new wildfire pushed by gusting winds threatens the small Columbia River Gorge community of Rowena, where residents of 275 homes had been told to evacuate as of Wednesday night.

The fire made a run along the river Wednesday evening, fire spokesman Dave Wells said. As the day's smoke cleared, flames were visible from The Dalles, a city of about 14,000 that is about six miles from the blaze.

An unspecified number of residents in an outlying Dalles neighbourhood were also told to be ready to leave if necessary, Wells said.

No homes had burned as of Wednesday night, the spokesman said. Firefighters planned to work through the night protecting structures.

Earlier in the day, five helicopters dropped water on the blaze as winds gusted to more than 30 mph, fire spokesman Justin de Ruyter said. By Wednesday night, the wind was blowing at about 15 mph, Wells said.

A section of U.S. Highway 30 was closed in the area, but Interstate 84 remained open. Rowena is about 75 miles east of Portland.

The fire began in brush Tuesday night and quickly spread to about 200 acres of timber and scrub oak in rocky, steep terrain that is home to rattlesnakes, ticks and poison oak. It grew on Wednesday, but no updated acreage figure was available pending an infrared flight scheduled overnight.

"We've got a challenging fire on our hands," de Ruyter said.

Gov. John Kitzhaber invoked the state's authority to mobilize local fire departments to protect buildings, and structural protection fire crews have come from three counties.

The governor also toured Oregon's biggest wildfire, the Oregon Gulch fire, which burned six homes last week in the Siskiyou Mountains along the California border about 15 miles east of Ashland. It was 37 per cent contained at 57 square miles. While in fire camp, he called on Congress to pay for more forest-thinning projects to reduce the risk of wildfires.

"These fires are a symptom of a much larger forest health issue," he said. "We just have to begin to deal with the root causes. That means lending some urgency to improving the health and resiliency of our forests in a way that can produce jobs.

"It's up to the United States Congress to put resources into the (forest health issue) so that we can clean up these forests and reduce this fire risk."

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack this week said the U.S. Forest Service will soon have to start pulling funding from thinning projects and other programs to pay for the continued battle against wildfires.

Congress is divided over how to move forward on the issue.

In all, there are 10 large fires in Oregon, with nearly 4,000 people fighting them across 143 square miles of timber and rangeland. The cost to date exceeds $36.7 million.

The Northwest has been at Fire Preparedness Level 5 — the top level — since July 16, and the season still has a long way to go, said Tom Knappenberger, a spokesman at the federal interagency fire centre in Portland.

"It's just an indicator of how bad this fire season is, and it's only Aug. 6," he said. "It's just amazing."

___

Barnard reported from Grants Pass, Oregon.

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