An Oregon Department of Forestry firefighting crew on Abbot Butte near Sunriver, Ore. watches for fires as a lightning storm moves across Central Oregon on July 31, 2013. (AP Photo/The Bulletin/Rob Kerr)
PORTLAND, Ore. — Gov. John Kitzhaber will visit southwest Oregon to get a firsthand look at the wildfires that have threatened homes and made the air unhealthy to breathe.
He'll be joined Saturday morning by U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley. The trip comes after the death of a firefighter who was hit by a falling treetop Thursday while removing fuels near a small wildfire in Central Oregon.
The governor is likely to find an improving situation on the five major wildfires in the southwest part of the state.
Cooler temperatures and higher humidity Thursday slowed the blazes that have charred about 40,000 acres of forestland. Nearly 4,500 firefighters are on the scene and more are on the way as the relatively mild U.S. fire season has freed firefighters and equipment to come to the Pacific Northwest.
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The politicians plan to visit Glendale, close to where the lightning-sparked Douglas Complex of wildfires ignited last week. Those blazes have burned more than 28,000 acres, or 44 square miles. Residents from 105 houses got evacuation notices last week, but the improving situation allowed 45 to return late Thursday.
Smoke from those wildfires has worsened air quality to unhealthy-to-hazardous levels across southwest Oregon and into Northern California for the past week. Outdoor activities have been canceled and hospitals have seen an uptick in emergency room visits due to breathing complaints.
The smoke started to clear Friday, but protective masks are still the region's must-have accessory.
"The air quality changes every hour," said Brad Carlson, the Grants Pass-based air quality coordinator for Josephine County. "Right now, it's actually not that bad. There's a little bit of blue sky and the visibility is probably up to a mile, if not two miles."
"It's much better than it's been the last couple days, but we're not out of it yet," he said of the hazy skies. "It's temporary. The fires are all still there."
The state appears to have caught a break as no large wildfire has yet to emerge from the more than 4,000 lightning strikes that hit Central and Eastern Oregon on Thursday and early Friday.
But many small fires ignited and more will become apparent during the weekend.
"There are some that we don't even know are out there yet," said Carol Connolly, spokeswoman for the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center in Portland. "They are smoldering on the ground. Once it heats up, and the smoke comes above tree-top level, we will be able to detect them."
One of the small fires led to the death of firefighter John Hammack. Deschutes County Search and Rescue recovered the 58-year-old man's body Friday. The authorities had earlier incorrectly reported the Central Oregon resident's age and misspelled his name.
Bend television station KTVZ reported that first responders were to escort the body down Highway 20 in downtown Sisters, Ore., the Western-themed city in which Hammack was raised.
"The guy was tough," friend Rick Geraths told the station. "I mean, I was really surprised he had a logging accident. It wasn't his first time doing that."
Hammack was also heavily into rodeo. According to a June 1981 article in The Bend Bulletin, Hammack rode his first calf at 8, quit high school after his junior year and joined the Northwest Rodeo Association at 15.
The article said Hammack, who was 26 at the time, excelled in bareback riding and once competed in 11 rodeos in four days in Washington state.
"Luck's half the battle," he was quoted as saying. "If you draw a bad horse, there's not a whole lot you can do."
Fire Crews Gain Ground on Biggest Wash. Fire
Fire crews are working to complete a fire line around a wildfire that has burned across 125 square miles south of Wenatchee, Wash.
Fire officials say firefighters are working to build lines around the remaining 6 miles of the Colockum Tarps Fire and will mop up and secure fire lines that have already been built.
More than 830 firefighters are assigned to the fire, which is 30 percent contained.
Firefighters in north-central Washington also are working to contain several small fires sparked by lightning on Thursday.
Near Goldendale, the Mile Marker 28 Fire is 75 percent contained, and the Washington Department of Transportation reopened U.S. Highway 97 to travel without the requirement of a pilot car. Speed limits have been reduced to 40 mph in the area of the fire.
AP Photo/The Wenatchee World, Don Seabrook
Jeff Kane, a wheat rancher from Rock Island, Wash., uses a shovel to hold a fire line on a lightning-started brush fire on the edge of Badger Mountain east of East Wenatchee, Wash., late Thursday afternoon, Aug. 1, 2013.