Improving weather conditions put Oregon firefighters on ‘offense’

By Dirk VanderHart (OPB)
Portland, Ore. Sept. 11, 2020 10:17 p.m. Updated: Sept. 11, 2020 11:47 p.m.

Gov. Kate Brown cautioned that there is a lot of work to be done and many mega-fires will likely burn until fall rains.

Four wildfires continued gaining ground and firefighters worried that two mega-fires would soon merge in Clackamas County on Sept. 10, 2020.

Four wildfires continued gaining ground and firefighters worried that two mega-fires would soon merge in Clackamas County on Sept. 10, 2020.

Jonathan Levinson / OPB

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown and state fire officials sounded a new note of optimism Friday about wildfires that have devastated the state for days, noting that weather improved firefighting conditions around major blazes. But the improved news came with a caution: Oregon still has a long way to go before it’s out of danger.


“The weather system fueling these fires over the past few days has finally broken down and our firefighting teams tell me they can feel it,” Brown said at a media briefing. “We anticipate cooler air and moisture coming in the next few days.”

Gusting east winds that have sent fires storming down the west side of the Cascades since Monday have finally died down, giving way to cooler, moister air from the coast. Doug Grafe, fire chief at the Oregon Department of Forestry, said that will allow thousands of firefighters working more than a dozen large fires to take a more proactive stance.

“It’ll put us in a position to move from just life safety to offense against these fires,” Grafe said. “These conditions will carry through the weekend. This is positive firefighting weather for three days. It’ll continue to next week with more favorable conditions.”

The announcements mark the most positive tone state officials have been able to offer since Monday, when heavy winds and historically dry conditions sparked the worst fire season Oregon has ever seen. More than 1 million acres have burned in less than a week, with upwards of 40,000 Oregonians ordered to evacuate their homes and some towns decimated.

Related: Firestorm survivors return to survey the damage in east Marion County

But while Brown acknowledged she was grateful to be able to offer some good news, officials also sought to temper expectations. The governor said “dozens” of people remain missing. And large fires burning throughout the state — including the 440,000-acre behemoth extending from the Warm Springs Reservation to Molalla — won’t be over for weeks.

Grafe specifically named eight large fires he expects will remain burning until fall rains arrive. Those include not only the Riverside, Beachie Creek (aka Santiam) and Lionshead fires, but also the Holiday Farm Fire east of Eugene, the Archie Fire in Douglas County, and a fire burning north of Crater Lake.

“Those fires represent close to 1 million acres on the landscape,” Grafe said. “To manage expectations, we will see smoke and we will see firefighters on those fires up until the heavy rains of the fall.”


Related: After wildfires, Oregon faces higher risk of landslides

In the meantime, he said, firefighters will work to contain the fires, and to stamp out eight additional, smaller fires around Oregon, including the Almeda Drive fire near Medford and the Echo Mountain fire near Lincoln City — both of which are believed to have caused extensive damage to Oregon communities.

At the press conference, Brown and Emergency Management Director Andrew Phelps also clarified a point that has led to widespread confusion since Thursday.

Both Brown and Phelps noted that while roughly half a million Oregonians live in areas that have been placed under some form of evacuation warning, many of those people had not actually been forced from their homes. Most are under orders to be prepared to go if fires in their area worsen.

That differed from a press release put out by the state Office of Emergency Management on Thursday that said, “An estimated 500,000 Oregonians have been evacuated and that number continues to grow.” News outlets around the globe repeated the error.

While not outright saying that that statement was wrong, Phelps acknowledged the confusion.

“We’re going to be working to ensure that any time we release numbers those numbers are factual and confirmed,” he said.

With weather now working in the state’s favor, officials in Oregon are turning toward amassing enough resources to battle the wildfires. Roughly 3,000 firefighters have been on the ground since August, but Grafe has said roughly double that will be necessary to bring the blazes under control.

To that end, Brown said she had spoken with President Donald Trump on Thursday, and appeared confident the White House was serious about sending Oregon federal aid.

“We’re stretched very thin because of the dire circumstance around the West Coast,” Brown said. “The White House and the federal government have been responsive to our needs in terms of getting us the people power that we need.”

On Thursday evening, Trump approved a request to declare a federal emergency in Oregon, setting the stage for more resources from federal agencies.