Science & Environment

Thousands evacuate, emergency declared as ‘unprecedented’ fires spread through state

By Erin Ross (OPB), Meerah Powell (OPB) and Dirk VanderHart (OPB)
Sept. 8, 2020 12:53 p.m. Updated: Sept. 9, 2020 2:17 p.m.

Oregon fire officials say they have never seen conditions so conducive to destructive fires, and that it might be days before they can begin trying to suppress the blaze.

Related: Live updates: Follow this story for the latest on wildfires burning across Oregon

Thousands of Oregonians were evacuated from their homes Tuesday, as conditions led to a spate of surging wildfires state officials said is unprecedented in modern memory.


With strong westward gusts pushing established fires over the crest of the Cascades, and setting off still more fires, officials said they were so focused on protecting lives and property that suppressing the blazes consuming hundreds of thousands of acres would have to wait.

“Our number one priority is evacuation and basic life safety,” said Mariana Ruiz-Temple, chief deputy state fire marshal. “This wind event does not give us the opportunity to really get in there and fight fire how we might fight fire in previous events.”

The gusts that began Monday gave new life to fires that had burned in central and eastern Marion County for weeks. It swept quickly down the canyons west of the cascades on Monday and Tuesday prompting evacuations in a swath of communities east of Salem.

Meanwhile intensifying fires east of Eugene, near Ashland and along the coast also demanded attention and prompted evacuation orders in towns and state prisons. The Mt. Hood National Forest has been shut down to the public until further notice. And elected officials, including Gov. Kate Brown, declared emergencies in hopes of better steering resources.

“We do not have context for this amount of fire on the landscape,” said Doug Grafe, chief of fire protection at the Oregon Department of Forestry, in a briefing with reporters.

As Grafe noted, the wind was only one factor that has caused dozens of blazes to kindle throughout Oregon and the Pacific Northwest. Officials say it combined with some of the driest conditions seen in decades and a cold front sweeping across the area.

“You combine that series of conditions and you have a supreme alignment for destructive fires. That’s exactly what we’ve seen,” Grafe said. “Seeing them run down the canyons the way they have carrying tens of miles in one afternoon and not slowing down through the evening. [There’s] absolutely no context for this environment.”

Grafe said conditions would likely render officials unable to “really go on the offensive” to begin suppressing the fires until Thursday.

What follows are details of some of what played out throughout Oregon on Tuesday.

Governor declares emergencies

During a press conference in the afternoon, Brown said she invoked the Emergency Conflagration act in response to rapid growth and severity of the Beachie Creek, Lionshead, and Holiday Farm fires.

The declaration authorizes the Oregon Office of State Fire Marshal to mobilize its resources to assist local agencies battling fires.

“Both Santiam and the Lionshead fires have together burned more than 200,000 acres so far and we’re seeing over 30,000 acres burned by the Holiday Farm fire. Thousands of Oregonians have been evacuated from their homes and many more are at risk,” Brown said.

Brown is enacting the declaration for the Beachie Creek and Lionshead fires, which were both active overnight in the Santiam Canyon. She has also enacted the declaration for the Holiday Farm Fire near McKenzie Bridge.

“The situation is very dangerous,” Brown said. “Wind continues to fuel these wildfires with devastating consequences across the entire state of Oregon.”

Parts of Ashland ordered to evacuate

Exits 14 through 21 on Interstate 5 near Ashland are closed due to a wildfire. The southbound lanes of Highway 99 through the area are also closed.

There is a grass fire near Almeda Drive in Quiet Village, the city said in a news release. Residents in that area — west of Michelle Avenue and lower Cambridge Street — are being told to evacuate. The city is also urging others to avoid the area.

Also in southern Oregon, the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office announced Level 3 “Go” evacuation orders in the town of Glide, east of Roseburg.

Meanwhile, Crater Lake National Park announced Tuesday it is enacting a complete fire ban. That ban includes no wood or charcoal fires allowed anywhere in the park.

Gasoline and propane camp stoves and gas grills are permitted in campgrounds, picnic areas, backcountry areas and residential areas, according to the National Parks Service. Smoking is only permitted in vehicles — if an ashtray is used — or while stopped in an area that is barren or free of flammable materials for at least three feet in diameter.

Oregon evacuates three prisons

The Oregon Department of Corrections announced Tuesday it evacuated 1,450 inmates from three prisons because of threats from wildfires.

Inmates at the Santiam Correctional Institution, the Oregon State Correctional Institution and the Mill Creek Correctional Facility have been transferred to the Oregon State Penitentiary.

All of the evacuated prisons face threats from the Lionshead and Beachie Creek wildfires. The inmates will sleep on emergency beds around the Oregon State Penitentiary. The guards and staff who work at the three evacuated prisons will also be transferred to the state prison.

The fires come amid the coronavirus pandemic. Oregon’s prisons have seen six deaths so far related to the virus, and some of the highest rates of COVID-19.

Marion, Clackamas counties declare state of emergency

The top officials in Marion and Clackamas counties on Tuesday declared a State of Emergency due to spreading wildfires in the region.

The emergency declaration allows the county to seek resources from the state, the board of commissioners said in a news release.

“Our sheriff’s deputies and police and fire agencies were heroic and aided hundreds of people last night in the midst of fire,” Colm Willis, chair of the Marion County Board of Commissioners, said in a statement. "We will continue to work around the clock to protect our communities. My thoughts and prayers are with everyone who has lost homes or loved ones in this horrible fire.”

The Marion County Sheriff’s Office confirmed Tuesday that some people fleeing fires in the Santiam Canyon needed to receive hospital treatment for burns.

A spokesperson for the sheriff’s office did not have details on the number of people injured or the extent of their injuries but said a small number of people were treated at Salem Hospital.

The Oregon Burn Center, in Portland, confirmed it has received three patients from the wildfires burning statewide. The Oregon Burn Center is part of Legacy Emanual Medical Center and provides the highest level of burn care in the state.

At least one Marion County hospital, the Legacy Silverton Medical Center, is under a Level 2 “Get Set” evacuation order.

On Tuesday, the hospital had eight patients. All noncritical procedures have been canceled or moved, and the emergency department is diverting ambulances to other hospitals.

The hospital is developing an evacuation plan in the event that it is needed, said spokesperson Brian Terrett.

“They are trying to figure out which patients would need to move, where would they go, how they would manage them,” he said.

Cellular towers in the area are down because of fires that have quickly spread along Highway 22. That’s made it harder for the sheriff’s office to communicate. Deputies for the agency are going door-to-door to ensure people are safely evacuated. The agency said people should check its Facebook page for the latest information.

Meanwhile, commissioners in Clackamas County declared a state of emergency in a meeting Tuesday morning, as firefighters in the county battled 15 separate fire-related incidents, some of them small.

The announcement came as county leaders said roughly 1,100 homes had been evacuated because of fires near Oregon City, Molalla and Colton. Apart from areas where evacutions have already been enforced, or communities told to “be set” to evacuate, county leaders said “everyone in Clackamas County today... should understand that they are at Evacuation Level 1: Be Ready.”

The U.S. Forest Service announced Tuesday afternoon it was shutting down the entierety of the Mt. Hood National Forest, including “developed campgrounds, dispersed camping, day use areas, wilderness areas, and all forest roads and trails.” The closure will be re-evaluated on a daily basis, forest service said.

Evacuations for towns along Highway 22

A series of fast-moving wildfires spurred Level 3 “Go Now” and Level 2 “Get Set” evacuations for communities along a 40-mile stretch of highway in the central Cascades late Monday night and into Tuesday.

Towns along Highway 22, from Lyons-Mehama through Idanha, were told to evacuate immediately early Tuesday morning. The cities of Stayton and Sublimity were put under a Level 2 “Get Set” evacuation order shortly before 5 a.m. Fire has been reported as far west as Mehama, dozens of miles from the Beachie Creek Fire, and evacuees report seeing flames along both sides of Highway 22.

Residents fled in the middle of the night, the status of their homes and friends uncertain. In a Facebook post, Mill City officials said “at this time we have no information on the status of our homes, businesses and community.” But on community Facebook groups, residents shared stories of their evacuations, letting each other know which houses and landmarks were still standing, and which were already gone.

Residents of Stayton responded to a post on the city’s Facebook page, saying that they didn’t receive mobile emergency alerts notifying them of the Level 2 evacuation notices. Others farther east on Highway 22 under Level 3 evacuation orders said it took several hours for mobile alerts to arrive. Many heard of the evacuations in other ways and had already left their homes.

There’s very little official information. Cell towers have been clogged and lines are down. For most of Tuesday morning, an emergency information line set up by the Marion County Sheriff’s department had rang busy, and residents and reporters have been unable to get through.

At 7:15 AM, the Marion County Sheriff’s Office extended Level 3 “Go” orders to a large swath of residents from the city of Scott’s Mills south through the Crooked Finger area.

‘An emotional disaster’

Mill City resident Ashley Nicole woke up at midnight Tuesday to a neighbor pounding on the door. It was a neighbor whose family works for the local fire department, and she learned she had to get out of the town near Highway 22 immediately.


“I was an emotional disaster,” said Nicole, who has lived in Mill City her entire life. “I have two kids, 4 and 6. And I’ve got dogs.”

Nicole loaded up her children and dogs into the car, grabbing just a few things along the way: clothes, cellphones, chargers.

“I felt like, you know, ‘My house is gone. So, what am I going to lose?’ So I grabbed urns with family members and some clothes,” she told OPB.

At 3 a.m., Nicole got an alert on her phone. It was her smart doorbell and someone had rung it.

“They were going door to door to get everyone out.”

The morning sky glows red in Stayton, Ore., as wildfires, worsened by dry weather and strong winds, explode across the state.

The mid-morning sky glows red in Stayton, Ore., as wildfires, worsened by dry weather and strong winds, explode across the state.

Cassandra Profita / OPB

Nicole said she realized it meant her house was still there, and so were her neighbors.

“As long as I have power, I have Wi-Fi and I know my home is still there,” Nicole said. Other neighbors haven’t been so lucky. Fleeing residents said the elementary school, cemetery, lumber companies and parks of Mill City are on fire.

Nicole said she plans to keep her doorbell camera on — not just for her, but for her neighbors.

“I want to do whatever I can to help people worry less,” she said.

Wider Portland metro area

The Washington County Sheriff’s Office has issued a Level 3 “Go now” evacuation order for all of Dundee Road near Hagg Lake, west of Oregon Highway 47.

The Washington County Sheriff's Office issued Level 3 "go now" evacuation orders the morning of Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2020, for residents on Dundee Road near Henry Hagg Lake due to the Powerline Fire.

The Washington County Sheriff's Office issued Level 3 "go now" evacuation orders the morning of Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2020, for residents on Dundee Road near Henry Hagg Lake due to the Powerline Fire.

Courtesy of the Washington County Sheriff's Office

Forest Grove Fire and Rescue had been tending to a fire near the lake, called the Powerline Fire. The agency said it had dropped fire retardant on its marks but then saw another growing fire near Dundee Road.

Later Tuesday, the sheriff’s announced that a new wildfire had sprung up, this time south of the small town of Midway. The WCSO first ordered evacuations along an expanse of Bald Peak Road at around 7:20 p.m., then quickly expanded the Level 3 evacuation to a slightly wider swath of terrain.

At 6:45 a.m., Tuesday morning, footage showed a fire burning in the fields near Molalla in rural Clackamas County. It is unclear if the fire was started by sparks from the nearby Beachie Creek Fire.

Clackamas Fire said Tuesday morning it had managed to contain several fires that sparked Monday night — including fires in and near Oregon City, near the Portland metro area. The agency said it is also responding to multiple fires reported in Estacada.

Beachie Creek Fire

The Beachie Creek Fire, burning near Detroit, and the Lionshead Fire, near Breitenbush, had both remained relatively small since lightning strikes started them Aug. 16. But high winds and dry weather across the state reinvigorated the fires over the weekend, sparking new blazes as the winds carried embers miles down the canyon. Residents of Detroit, Breitenbush, Idanha and nearby communities were initially told to expect to evacuate by late Tuesday morning, but the situation deteriorated quickly overnight.

Dry, east winds pushed fires along Highway 22 and Highway 126 down the canyons, sparking Level 3 evacuation notices that stretch for dozens of miles. Downed trees from the flames blocked traffic heading east on Highway 22, forcing some fleeing residents to turn around and head for Salem.

Early Tuesday morning, campers at Detroit Lake area state parks were evacuated. Later, campers and visitors at Silver Falls State Park near Sublimity and Silverton were evacuated. Oregon State Parks representatives told OPB those parks will be closed until further notice.

Red Cross evacuation centers have been set up at the Deschutes County Fairgrounds in Redmond to the east and Oregon State Fairgrounds in Salem to the west.

Some school districts postpone classes

Several Oregon school districts are postponing the first day of school Tuesday due to power outages and emergency evacuations.

Affected school districts include Canby, Oregon City, Gervais, Molalla River and Colton.

Cascade School District reports no kindergarten or preschool, and no distance learning due to several staff members evacuating from fires.

School for Scio students doesn’t start until Sept. 14, but districtwide training planned for teachers has been postponed.

In messages on social media, school districts expressed plans to reopen Wednesday.

Food and technology distribution, as well as child care, remain open at some sites.

Oregon Coast Community College is also closed Tuesday due to highway closures, power outages, and local fires.

More on school disruptions here.

Fire, evacuations near Mckenzie Bridge

A wildfire burning along Highway 126 near McKenzie Bridge has closed the highway and brought Level 3 “Go Now” evacuations from Walterville Elementary School to the McKenzie River Ranger Station near Belknap Springs, a stretch of over 40 miles. At 6 a.m., the Lane County Sheriff’s Office issued Level 1 “Be Ready” evacuations that extend west to the intersection of Highway 126 and Thurston Road, just a few miles east of Springfield. At 8:30 AM, the Level 3 “Go Now” order was expanded West to Walterville Elementary School from Leaburg.

‘Limbs flying vertically at you’

Tara Major fled her home in an RV park off Hwy 126 in Lane County Monday night, near where the McKenzie fire started.

“It was absolutely terrifying. You pull out on the road and there are limbs flying vertically at you. You have to watch for falling trees. Multiple times you come around a corner and there’s a tree in the road … I’ve never seen the forest like that. It was violent,” Major said.

She described how the situation changed with terrifying speed, and how the warnings went from a Level 2 order to pack and get ready for evacuation, to a “go now” order within an hour. Major said she grabbed a neighbor who doesn’t have a car, and their pets.

“I just tried to make sure that everyone was going, the people that I could see,” she said.

Tara Major waits for Red Cross assistance in Redmond after fleeing the McKenzie fire, Sept. 8, 2020.

Tara Major waits for Red Cross assistance in Redmond after fleeing the McKenzie fire, Sept. 8, 2020.

Emily Cureton/OPB

After the chaos, she said, she’d heard that least one neighbor was left behind, and others remained unaccounted for.

“We’re just hoping the winds kept it away from home. And that there will be something to go back to. We’re still missing people. We can’t find some of our neighbors. We don’t know where they are or how to get a hold of them” Major said, adding that she didn’t know if the market where she works burned down, either.

As of Tuesday afternoon, Major was among 20 to 25 groups that evacuated to the Deschutes County Expo Center in Redmond, site of a Red Cross evacuation shelter.

“We have been here since before the sun rose,” Major said, estimating she’d been awake 36 hours. “I just need a nap.”

The first evacuees to arrive were kept out of doors in the parking lot, or in their own vehicles due to Covid-19 precautions, a Red Cross volunteer said. The organization was in the process of arranging hotel rooms for them Tuesday afternoon.

The Oregon Coast

Three wildfires are burning off of Highway 18 near Lincoln City. Portions of Echo Mountain Road are under Level 3 and Level 1 evacuation notices, and portions of Kimberling Mountain Road along Highway 18 also report Level 3, 2, and 1 evacuation orders.

As of 8 a.m. Tuesday, a fire near Waldport remains contained, though residents of nearby Swisshome were issued a mandatory evacuation early this morning for an unrelated fire.

Those leaving the area have few available routes, as downed trees and powerlines have closed Highway 101 north of Depoe Bay and Highway 34 from mileposts 4-5. Mileposts 7-10 are closed along Highway 18.

Power outages

In other parts of Oregon, almost 100,000 residents lost power late Monday night as winds brought down trees and transformers exploded. Portland General Electric preemptively shut off power for 5,000 residents west of Mount Hood to prevent downed power lines from sparking forest fires.

Governor praises utility’s power shutoff

Gov. Kate Brown commended Portland General Electric for its swift action in initiating its first-ever ‘public safety power shut off’ in the Mt. Hood area, cutting power off for 48 hours for nearly 5,000 customers.

Oregon Department of Forestry’s Chief of Fire Protections Doug Grafe said the current weather system the western part of the state is experiencing is expected to break down by Thursday.

“This will give us our first opportunity to really shift the strategies relative to these fires from life safety, which is getting people out of the areas and point protection and protecting structures and communities, to move forward on these fires with suppression efforts,” Grafe said.

Grafe said there are a little over 3,000 firefighters battling fires around the state and expects to see that number increase over the next couple of weeks.

This story will be updated.