Fire officials overseeing the Riverside Fire in Clackamas County said that, while more resources are available and the weather has improved, they are still fighting a very active fire with persistent danger.
According to an update on the National Wildfire Coordinating Group, erratic winds Thursday drove growth on all sides of the fire, which was estimated to be more than 130,000 acres on Friday afternoon. But winds in the area were considerably lighter Friday and humidity had increased. Fears that the Riverside and Beachie Creek fires would merge had yet to materialize.
“As of the most current infrared flight that we have, it still shows the Beachie Creek and Riverside fires, respectively, approximately one air mile apart,” said Holly Crake, the public information officer for the Riverside Fire incident management team. “It’s a very fluid and dynamic situation. We anticipate with a combination of weather and continued record dry fuel — timber and grass out there — that it’s likely the two might merge in the coming hours or potentially days.”
Crake said the fires themselves don’t have to combine to cause dangerous conditions on the ground. If the smoke from the two fires combines, it can form a “plume-dominated fire event.”
“What happens there is that a large fire plume, often 10,000 feet ... develops, and that can actually create a micro weather event within the fire itself,” Crake said. “We see erratic winds, downdrafts and some pretty extreme fire behavior.”
Smoke plumes from the two fires briefly combined Thursday, creating conditions so dangerous that firefighters had to disengage from the fire for about two hours.
So far, it is estimated the Riverside Fire has destroyed 33 homes and 20 other structures. The fire remained about a half-mile from the town of Estacada as of Friday morning. Late Thursday, erratic fire behavior caused officials to put some major population centers in Clackamas County — including Sandy, Oregon City and Canby — under Level 2 “Get Set” evacuation notices.
This morning a Type 1 incident management team arrived, bringing more resources, knowledge and support.
“We will soon become a priority fire in the region,” said the team’s operations section chief Ralph Lucas. “And the decisionmakers will allow the doors to open up for additional resources for us to bring in the horsepower that we need.”
Lucas said that horsepower includes more fire engines, people, air support and logistical resources. He said they will soon ramp up to become a small city of firefighters.
In Molalla, a town 20 miles south of Portland where fire has lurked on the outskirts for days, officials said the weather is improving.
“Right now, the weather is working in our favor, winds have slowed to approximately 5 mph and the humidity levels have risen,” the Molalla Police Department wrote in a press release Friday morning. “However, these conditions can change quickly. The potential danger of fire spotting is a real concern.”
Molalla remained under a Level 3 “Go Now” evacuation order, with fires burning about 6 miles from the town.
Lucas said there is a section of fire about 4 miles from Molalla. But, he said, it is secure, meaning activity there is low and firefighters have it under control. In Estacada, Lucas said hot shot crews are on the ground and have been able to address hot spots near the town.
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According to the National Wildfire Coordinating Group, heavy smoke is still preventing air operations in the area, but firefighters will be using unpiloted aerial vehicles to conduct reconnaissance of the fire area.
Crake said the fires continue to grow and firefighters have so far been focusing their efforts on protecting lives and structures in its path.
“We have scouted locations to be able to directly engage the fire, but unfortunately we have those critical life-safety needs where our resources have been focused,” she said. “If those concerns become lesser, and we get in additional resources, then we can start to put in dozer lines and build hand lines.”
Lucas said they currently have no plans to expand or lift any evacuation orders in the county.