Those were among the ways Oregon Gov. Kate Brown described the catastrophic wildfires blazing through large swaths of western Oregon Wednesday. The last statement was a reference to a handful of communities, including Phoenix and Talent in southern Oregon, Blue River and Vida in Lane County and Detroit at the foot of Mount Jefferson.
The same day Brown warned of historic losses of property and human lives, county officials confirmed at least three deaths discovered among the burned remains in the fires' wake: an individual in Jackson County was discovered where the Almeda Drive Fire burned, and two were found in Marion County, where a complex of fires has burned whole canyons east of the Willamette River.
Officials said they’re looking forward to a change in weather, expected Thursday, as an opportunity to make headway on the fire, even as they’re bracing to find more carnage as the wildfires continue to burn thousands of acres in the state.
Jackson County Sheriff Nate Sickler said a criminal investigation is underway into the person who died near where the Almeda Drive Fire started, close to Ashland, according to reporting by Jefferson Public Radio.
“Based on the circumstances there’s likely there could be additional [deaths]. But we won’t know that for some time,” Sickler said.
Sickler said some local residents refused to leave their homes as the fire approached, and the department doesn’t know yet what became of them.
The Marion County Sheriff’s office confirmed two deaths linked to wildfires that are ravaging Oregon this week.
Sheriff Joe Kast said Wednesday afternoon that search and rescue teams found the people dead in a car. They were fleeing from the Santiam Fire.
The Salem Statesman Journal reports the two deceased victims are a 13-year-old Wyatt Tofte and his grandmother, 71-year-old Peggy Mosso. The newspaper also reports the boy’s mother survived the fire but is in critical condition.
Governor warns Oregonians to brace for extensive loss
State leaders warned Oregonians Wednesday they would learn of further destruction as wildfires continued to spread across Oregon and Washington, fueled by the dry winds and flames that reignited old fires and started new ones across the state.
Officials said the situation is unprecedented, and it could be days before the fires are under control. The combined fires burned hundreds of thousands of acres in a single day, destroying homes while residents fled to smoke-filled cities.
“This could be the greatest loss of human lives and property due to wildfire in our state’s history,” Oregon Gov. Kate Brown said at a press conference.
The Northwest Interagency Coordination Center said Wednesday morning that fires in Oregon and Washington burned 515,135 acres in a 24-hour timespan, and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management said in a tweet Wednesday that 27 large fires are burning more than 900,000 acres in the Northwest currently.
There are roughly 4,000 firefighters working in both states, but personnel is moving from fire to fire so quickly the NWICC could not give details on how many people were working a given fire at the moment.
Northwest Oregon state-managed forests closed to public
The Oregon Department of Forestry Wednesday closed the Tillamook, Clatsop and Santiam state forests to the public, effective immediately. The department has also closed state forestlands in Polk, Lincoln and Benton counties.
The Santiam State Forest is closed until further notice. All other closures will last at least through Sunday.
Oregon requests federal assistance
Gov. Brown is requesting federal assistance for wildfires burning across the state.
All seven members of Oregon’s congressional delegation supported Brown’s request for a state Emergency Declaration in a letter sent Wednesday to President Donald Trump.
“The number and scale of fires burning on Oregon’s landscape at the moment are unprecedented, and urgent action is necessary,” the letter said.
The request hopes to secure funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for Oregon agencies' immediate recovery operations.
“We’re talking about assistance that keeps people safe,” said U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden. “They are going to go for such basic things like water, and assistance in getting to safety — this is for those immediate needs.”
The request for disaster relief still needs to be approved by President Trump, but Wyden said the state’s congressional delegation is united in keeping up pressure to make sure Oregonians receive the assistance.
Evacuated inmates sleep in chapel, classrooms
Roughly 1,450 inmates along with guards and staff from three prisons in the Salem area were evacuated Tuesday and sent to the Oregon State Penitentiary on the city’s west side to escape the Santiam Fire burning along Highway 22.
The state penitentiary has capacity for about 2,200 inmates, but now holds more than 3,300, according to DOC. Inmates are sleeping on mats and cots in the chapel, classrooms and other spaces not designed to house people, said department spokesperson Jen Black.
“Everyone had a spot inside,” she said, noting that no one was sleeping outside in the prison yard.
The fires come amid the global coronavirus pandemic, as prisons have tried, but struggled to create enough social distance to slow the spread of the virus. So far, at least six inmates have died from COVID-19.
“We are aware of the impact that this decision could have on the spread of COVID-19 within our facilities, and we are taking all available steps to mitigate that impact,” Black said in an email. “As we have said from the beginning, prisons were not constructed to allow for optimal social distancing. During the evacuations, DOC has utilized any available measures to ensure social distancing, but this crisis makes a challenging situation even more difficult.”
Two of the three prisons evacuated have no known cases of COVID-19, according to DOC. But the Oregon State Correctional Institution is listed as on “Tier 2,” meaning there are confirmed inmates or employee cases that have originated from the institution. The Oregon State Correctional Institution lists two known staff cases of COVID-19 and four inmates who are quarantined.
Power outages persist
As of midday Wednesday, more than 50,000 people were without power across much of western Oregon. Portland General Electric listed more than 33,000 customers without power in Washington, Marion, Yamhill and Multnomah counties. Most of the company’s outages were in Clackamas County.
Pacific Power said it had more than 18,000 customers without electricity in Jackson, Lincoln, Linn and Marion counties. More than 12,000 of those outages were in the Medford area.
Lincoln City threatened
A fire on the Oregon coast is threatening Lincoln City, which is under an evacuation order. The Echo Mountain Complex fire is 1,000 acres and jumped Highway 18 Tuesday night, according to Ashley Lertora with the Oregon Department of Forestry.
She said about 100 firefighters are making indirect attacks on the fast moving fire, because it isn’t possible to get ahead of at this point. The northern end of Lincoln City is under a Level 3 “Go Now” evacuation order. Much of the rest of the coastal town is under a Level 2 “Get Ready” evacuation order.
The Samaritan North Lincoln Hospital evacuated nine patients because of the fire. They were safely transferred to Newport. As of 11 a.m. Wednesday morning the hospital in Lincoln City was closed.
Santiam Canyon Fire search and rescue
Public officials in Marion County offered a vivid description of the race to evacuate Santiam Canyon residents late Monday as the Santiam Canyon Fire grew out of control. Marion County Sheriff Joe Kast said deputies began evacuating residents in more remote areas on Saturday ahead of forecasted high winds and dry weather. But he said his team was caught off guard when the fire exploded in growth Monday evening.
“A slew of people came back to our side. A bunch of people made it out over the pass,” Kast said. “It was extremely risky and dangerous.”
The chaotic scene means officials are unsure of how many people evacuated safely in time and how many may have been caught in the blaze. Kast said deputies hope to return to the area soon to conduct search and rescue efforts but so far no timeline for when that will be possible has developed.
In Marion County, areas stretching from the mouth of the Santiam Canyon to Scott’s Mills remain under Level 3 evacuations as of Wednesday afternoon. Aumsville, Stayton, Sublimity and Silverton remained at Level 2 notices.
A Southern Oregon reporter on covering wildfires while evacuating from them
Jefferson Public Radio reporter April Ehrlich was on the ground covering the devastating wildfires in Southern Oregon when she realized the nearby wildfire was approaching her house. So she drove back home and together she and her husband packed up their two dogs, two cats and supplies and headed to a friend’s house.
She continued to report on the wildfires tearing through the region from there until the same wildfire that threatened her home started encroaching on her new shelter.
“Last night, we ended up in another friend’s house in Grants Pass where we slept on our friend’s patio furniture in their backyard with our dogs," she told OPB. Ehrlich spoke with OPB “Morning Edition” host Geoff Norcross about the scene in Southern Oregon and her own experience as a wildfire evacuee.
On Wednesday morning, Clackamas County commissioners approved an emergency declaration that will provide additional resources to battle the four large fires currently burning in the county. So far, 22 structures have burned down and 600 are currently threatened.
Clackamas County Fire Chief Fred Charlton said weather has been a huge challenge as the east winds have made it difficult for the firefighters to contain the fires. He’s hoping to receive additional air assets to help suppress the fires. Right now, their number one priority is safety and making sure residents located in Level 3 evacuations are safe.
“Some of these fires especially driven by these strong winds, once they get up into the crowns of the trees they move very quickly,” Charlton said. “And that’s where some of the air operations can help or even getting in front of these fires so we can begin to slow them down.”
Crews are putting out hot spots after controlling a large fire off of Hwy 213 and Spangler Rd. A motor home caught on fire and spread to a nearby house and approx 10 acres of brush. 2 homes were lost. Several homes evacuated & have now returned. No injuries have been reported. pic.twitter.com/HFO7scy39g— Clackamas Fire (@clackamasfire) September 9, 2020
He said crews are hoping to get additional air assets but securing them has been difficult because so many fires are burning across Oregon.
By noon Wednesday, the Riverside Fire had burned an estimated 20,000 acres and altogether, the Unger, Dowty and Wilhoti fires had burned an estimated 2,500 acres.
Charlton said his team is collaboratively working with local and state agencies to help evacuate residents and everyone should follow evacuation orders.
The Spangler fire was started at 9 pm when an RV pulling a Jeep south was emitting sparks and caught fire. The RV pulled over and it started the brush fire.— Clackamas Sheriff (@ClackCoSheriff) September 9, 2020
Please use extreme caution as the fire hazard continues. #clackamaswildfires @clackamasfire @ORStatePolice @OregonDOT pic.twitter.com/vmnQJEgLln
Charlton said earlier that Clackamas County had extra resources from the state for about an hour to assist with the fires, but those resources had to leave to help in the Medford area on Tuesday night. Clackamas County was using only its firefighters and volunteers and was unable to give any further resources to help elsewhere in the state.
At 12:30 a.m. Wednesday, those south of Highway 211, from Estacada to Woodburn, were ordered to leave immediately. In a press conference, officials said that some people had just minutes to gather their essentials and leave. Firefighters carried chainsaws to cut through downed trees as they went from door to door, making sure people received the evacuation notice and were prepared to leave. Most of the southern half of Clackamas County is under a Level 3 evacuation order.
The sheriff’s office confirmed Wednesday that at least one of the fires that destroyed homes was human-caused. Deputies reported an RV pulling a Jeep had a loose trailer chain that sparked a field near Highway 213 and Spangler Road.
Roads and highways indefinitely closed across the state
With fires, come road closures. Many of Oregon’s fires started along the long, twisting highways that cross Oregon’s mountain ranges. These roads are usually the only way over the high mountains for miles around, and closing even one can have major impacts on travel and traffic across the region. As of Wednesday morning, four of nine routes over the Cascade Mountains are closed entirely. Closures also exist on connecting roads, as well as delays, making travel even more difficult. Check the ODOT-run Tripcheck before making travel or evacuation plans.
In Southern Oregon, Highway 66 — the primary road that connects the Rogue River Valley to the Klamath Basin remains open — technically. Travel is complicated by a fire that has closed Highway 97 heading north out of Klamath Falls, forcing any traffic to take a circuitous route around the fire. The region also connects to Ashland and Medford via Highways 62 and 140. Although both roads remain open, fires burning near the interchange in Medford have made travel slow and unreliable. Where the roads connect to Interstate 5, some lanes are still closed for fires and serious traffic delays stretch for miles.
Highway 199, which connects the Southern Oregon and Northern California coast to I-5, is also closed for a fire. The nearest open routes over the coast range are over 80 miles to the north or south. Elsewhere in Southern Oregon, Highway 138, which connects Roseburg to Highway 97 is also closed. The nearest routes over the Cascades start more than 50 miles north in Eugene, or south, in Ashland and Medford.
Of the two routes from Eugene to Highway 97, only Highway 58 is open. It’s also the only route over the Cascades open in all of Central Oregon. Travelers reported delays Tuesday, particularly in Oakridge, where power had been disconnected to prevent further fires. Highways 126, 20, 22 and 242, which connect the south and central Willamette Valley to Central Oregon remain closed. In the northern Willamette Valley, Highway 26 remains open.
On the Oregon Coast, widespread power outages are currently slowing traffic. Highway 18 out of Lincoln City is closed due to a wildfire. A small fire on Highway 34 near Waldport temporarily closed the road, but it is now open again. Another small fire on Highway 36 is causing two-hour delays. The state recommends taking Highway 126 from Mapleton toward Eugene and then heading north, if possible.
In Clackamas County, several roads are closed for fires, particularly around Molalla and Estacada. The situation there is changing rapidly. County officials ask that individuals avoid non-essential travel through the region to keep roads clear for evacuees and emergency officials.
Fires have brought down cell towers across the state as well. If travelling in an unknown area, paper copies of the route are advisable in case cell or GPS signals are lost.
There are several forest service roads that cross the mountains throughout the state. Many were preemptively closed due to fire risk. Almost 2 million acres of forest are closed to recreation in the Willamette and Mount Hood national forests, including forest service roads.
State officials ask that Oregonians avoid driving on dirt or grassy roads, make sure all chains are secured, and take all steps possible to avoid starting further fires. Several fires in the state have caused debris slides. It’s unclear when roads will be open again. In some cases, it may take a while before repair crews can make it back in, and even longer before the roads are fully open.
Various K-12 schools and colleges and universities in the state have canceled classes due to wildfires either due to the close proximity of wildfires or because of power outages not allowing students to access the internet.
As of Wednesday, dozens of schools and districts had announced closures or delays.
In Southern Oregon, two major fires burned through the Rogue River Valley on Tuesday, destroying structures and forcing evictions throughout the region. All of Jackson County is currently under a Level 1 “Get Ready” evacuation order.
The Almeda Street Fire, which ignited in a strip of grass near Interstate 5, spread north along the interstate, burning homes in Talent and Phoenix before arriving on the outskirts of Medford. Firefighters battled to contain the blaze into the evening, as smaller fires broke out near a shopping center in central Medford. Much of the city remains under Level 2 “Get Set” or Level 3 “Go Now” evacuation orders. New evacuations appeared throughout the evening as spot fires appeared, only to be rolled back as local fire crews worked to contain them.
A second fire in the community of Eagle Point has also caused evacuations and burned structures in the region.
In Lane County, much of the area East of Springfield remains under Level 3 “Go Now” evacuations from the Holiday Farm Fire, which ripped down the McKenzie River on Tuesday. As the fire moved west, evacuation orders were extended through Leaburg and Walterville. A Level 2 “Get Ready” notice was issued for communities stretching to the intersection of Highway 126 and Thurston Road, less than two miles east of Springfield city limits. Level 3 evacuations stretch from the nearby community of Walterville, through the town of Camp Creek, and north into the Mohawk Valley.
Smaller fires threaten communities statewide
In other regions, high winds sparked smaller, less destructive fires. As of 1 a.m. Wednesday, the Echo Mountain Complex Fire expanded evacuation zones near the intersection of Highway 101 and Highway 18 east of Lincoln City. Homes there remain empty, and the highway remains closed. A fire near Forest Grove that prompted local evacuations Tuesday remains under control.
Extreme fire conditions are expected to continue through Thursday.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of the Almeda Street Fire in Southern Oregon. OPB regrets the error.