Strong winds late Monday downed power lines in Santiam Canyon, which turned a fire that was already burning into an inferno that left people fleeing for their lives.
The Beachie Creek Fire — now called the Santiam Fire — has forced the evacuations of several thousand people who live in the string of towns that dot the scenic Highway 22 running from Salem into the Cascade Mountains.
The Beachie Creek Fire started around Aug. 16. Its cause is under investigation. But downed power lines due to high winds this week ignited many smaller, new fires that quickly helped the blaze grow, fire officials said Wednesday.
“There were many electrical fires that started from downed power lines,” said Stefan Myers with the Santiam Fire Information Team. “So, this isn’t just the one Beachie Creek Fire that became the fire we see now. It’s a multitude of small starts and fires that merged to become the Santiam Fire.”
The 159,000-acre fire is still too active to accurately survey the damage. Images emerging from the hardest-hit areas Wednesday show homes reduced to rubble, and a landscape stripped of life. What seems certain is the number of homes, businesses and other structures lost will be significant.
“The reality is we anticipate that number is going to be shocking,” Myers said. “We also anticipate that there may be loss of life. But we don’t have numbers at this point.”
That sentiment was shared by Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, who spoke in stark terms about fires statewide Wednesday.
“This could be the greatest loss of human lives and property due to wildfire in our state’s history,” Brown said, adding that several towns across the state, including some along Highway 22 were “substantially destroyed.”
How big of a roll downed powerlines played in this historic disaster remains unknown.
On Monday, firefighters were working the Beachie Creek fire at the town of Gates — about 40 miles east of Salem — when a downed powerline started a fire right outside their camp, Myers said.
“Most of their camp and area was burned through,” he said. “They were actively fighting fire outside their incident command post.”
Pacific Power is one of the utility companies that has power lines in the Santiam Canyon. A company spokesperson said in a statement it did not turn off the power.
“Shutting off power to our service territory in advance of the event could have created more issues for suppression and evacuation efforts,” spokesperson Tom Gauntt wrote in an email. “Santiam Canyon is a broad area that is not all in our service territory. However, within our service territory (Lyons / Mill City) there was not a proactive de-energization. The power outage to our distribution area was caused by damage during the wind event.”
In a statement Wednesday, Portland General Electric acknowledged electrical equipment could have played a role in the fires.
“PGE has received unconfirmed reports that some fires in the region may have been started by electrical equipment affected by heavy winds and debris,” PGE spokesman Steve Corson said in a statement.
Nearly, 60,000 people are without power around the state because of the wildfires. In many cases, it’s precautionary. Other outages are in areas where firefighters are working to control blazes or places damaged by Monday’s windstorm.
PGE cut electricity to eight high-risk fire areas, Corson said. On Monday, PGE turned off power to some 5,000 customers near Mt. Hood. The power to those residents could remain off through the weekend.
“These actions helped clear the path for our emergency responders to fight the Santiam Canyon and Riverside wildfires, as well as other area fires,” he said.
About 30,000 Pacific Power customers are without power. Of those, 7,000 in Southern Oregon have had their power shut down so firefighters can safely work, the company said.