“Off the map.”
That’s the triumphant phrase the chief of fire protection for the Oregon Department of Forestry Doug Grafe used to refer to several fires he felt were so well contained, they could be downgraded in priority. Among those “off the map” include the Echo Mountain Complex, which had forced numerous evacuations on the edge of Lincoln City; the Powerline Fire, which threatened parts of Washington County; and the Almeda Fire, the catastrophic blaze that burned down much of Phoenix and Talent in southern Oregon last week.
At the same time, Grafe gave insight into the enormity of the work crews have accomplished, and what remains — including the completion of hundreds of miles of containment lines around several remaining enormous blazes, including the Holiday Farm Fire in Lane County, and three huge blazes north of there that together have burned a half-million acres — the Beachie Creek, Lionshead and Riverside fires.
While damage estimates continue to escalate, as experts head into fire zones to inspect buildings, Oregonians got encouraging news on the death toll Thursday when Major Gen. Michael Stencel told reporters that a 12-person mortuary unit for the fire was planning to stand down. Oregon wildfires were responsible for eight confirmed deaths as of Friday.
Fire resources and information
These online tools offer up-to-the-minute emergency information on wildfires, evacuations and air quality in the Pacific Northwest:
- The EPA’s Air Quality Index: Hourly updates of local air quality readings.
- BlueSky Canada has an interactive map of wildfire smoke forecasts across the Pacific Northwest.
- Northwest fires and evacuations: Oregon’s RAPTOR Map shows wildfires across the U.S. West and evacuation zones within the state.
- Major Oregon and Washington fires: The Northwest Interagency Coordination Center shares this map of major fires in the Pacific Northwest
- Here are some practical tips — including a packing list — on how to prepare for a wildfire evacuation.
- PublicAlerts.org provides links to: sign up for emergency phone and email alerts across the Portland-Vancouver metro area.
- Outside the greater Portland metro area, alerts are handled by local governments. Search “Emergency Alerts” and your county’s name to find a link.
Summary of largest fires:
Archie Creek Fire: The fire burning in Douglas County was more than 130,000 acres in size and 25% contained as of Friday morning. The land burned by the Archie Creek Fire is roughly split between private property and land owned by the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management.
Beachie Creek Fire: The Beachie Creek Fire has burned more than 190,000 acres, destroying 1,288 structures and damaging 134. Of the eight people who have died in Oregon’s recent wildfires, four of them were killed in the Beachie Creek Fire. The fire was considered 20% contained as of Friday morning. Still, more than 4,000 structures remain within the Level 3 “Go Now” evacuation zone.
Holiday Farm Fire: The blaze responsible for burning communities near the McKenzie River has scorched more than 170,000 acres and was 10% contained as of Friday morning. Though the official size of the fire increased by 3,000 acres, much of that is due to better data, not fire growth. More than 500 structures have been destroyed through the area. Thunderstorms through the weekend could bring gusty winds, rain and even hail to the area.
Lionshead Fire: The 192,000-acre fire burning in the Cascades just east of the Beachie Creek and Riverside fires was 10% contained Friday morning. More than 1,000 personnel were listed as battling the blaze, which is burning largely on the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs Reservation and on national forest land south of Mount Hood. The incident management team said fire activity has been more subdued due to lower temperatures and increased humidity from rain.
Riverside Fire: Burning just north of the Beachie Creek Fire, the Riverside Fire was estimated at nearly 138,000 acres in size and was 10% contained as of Friday afternoon. Fire officials wrote that a flash flood watch is in effect for the area through late Friday due to heavy rain.
Slater Fire: Measured at just about 150,000 acres — much of that in California — the Slater Fire was considered 20% contained as of Friday morning. The roughly 40,000 acres burning in Oregon were considered 10% contained Friday by the Oregon Department of Forestry.
Good news from the rain: relief for firefighters
We were promised rain, and for once, the rain came. Boy, did it ever.
The National Weather Service initially predicted that a series of thunderstorms could bring a quarter to a half an inch of rain to douse fires burning on both sides of Oregon’s Cascades. Mother Nature delivered, and then some. The weather service reported that storm spotters were recording up to an inch of rain in just 20-30 minutes. The storms also brought lightning and ping pong ball-sized hail.
Grafe, the chief of fire protection for the Oregon Department of Forestry, said Thursday that the moisture would hit an ideal area.
“If I could script it, that’s exactly where I would [put it],” Grafe said, calling it “good news for Oregon.”
Grafe did warn that the winds could increase and, if the moisture didn’t hit the burning area first, those winds could be problematic and test any fire containment lines firefighters have established.
“For the next 24 hours, we’re expecting some challenges with the weather,” Grafe said Thursday. “The storm front does bring favorable moisture, however, there are some downsides and it’s those winds and it depends on where the winds land.”
Stations around the area clocked winds at up to 60 miles per hour.
Bad news from the rain: power failures, landslide risk
There’s a chance those rains could bring another set of consequences: violent, fast-moving landslides called post-fire debris flows that can outpace cars and annihilate anything in their path.
Already, the rain has knocked out electricity in some parts of Oregon. According to Pacific Power, there were more than 170 power outages in the state affecting nearly 5,000 households. The bulk of those outages, about 3,500, were clustered east of Albany. Pacific Power is also reporting outages Friday morning on the Oregon Coast, near Lincoln City, as well as up and down the Interstate-5 corridor.
The National Weather Service put out an alert for flash flooding and potential debris flows for burned areas throughout the Oregon Cascades. But even though the debris flows that follow fires are well-studied, there’s never really been one documented in Western Oregon.
The Oregon Department of Transportation, fire officials and researchers all agree on this: They really can’t say if a debris flow will happen, or if it does, how big it will be.
But they also say that these fires created the perfect conditions for such events. They burned very hot, in very steep terrain.
“It’s worse than I feared. It really is,” said Michael Zimmerman, senior engineering geologist for the Oregon Department of Transportation on Thursday. He works in an ODOT-designated region that encompasses Portland, Mount Hood and the area burned by the Riverside Fire.
It’s unclear if the heavy storms triggered any slides as of Friday morning, or if they will at all — most of the areas are evacuated, and news from incident command crews comes in slowly. But Thursday evening, operations were suspended at the Holiday Farm Fire, and all non-essential personnel, including most utility and road workers, were told to leave for 24 hours. Even if slides don’t come, officials said that storm damage was likely to slow firefighting progress, as high winds down burned trees in the area, and rains dislodge debris from unsteady hillsides.
David Bishop with the National Weather Service in Portland said Friday morning that the agency had not received any reports of flash floods in burn scars around the region. Though, he said, NWS did issue a flash flood warning for the Portland metro area due to Thursday night’s storm causing minor flooding on streets. That warning expired early Friday morning, Bishop said.
Meteorologists expect isolated thunderstorms, wind, and rain to continue to help and hinder fire crews through Saturday.
“Expect the precipitation to continue, but it will be on the lighter side than what was experienced [Thursday] night,” Bishop said, “and similar for thunder as well.”
Coffee Creek inmates return after evacuation
Inmates who evacuated Coffee Creek Correctional Facility last week due to threat of wildfires have returned to the facility Friday.
Inmates evacuated the Wilsonville facility Sept. 10 due to the nearby Riverside and Beachie Creek wildfires. More than 1,000 female and nearly 300 male inmates were taken to the Deer Ridge Correctional Institution in Madras.
The Oregon Department of Corrections earlier this week reported that at least two inmates part of that transfer have since tested positive for COVID-19.
“DOC is aware of the impact the decision to evacuate may have had on the spread of COVID-19 within its facilities and took precautions to mitigate the impact whenever possible,” the agency said in a statement.
Other corrections facility in Oregon, including the Oregon State Correctional Institution, Mill Creek Correctional Facility and Santiam Correctional Institution, had also evacuated inmates due to wildfires. Those facilities evacuated inmates to the Oregon State Penitentiary. All of those inmates have since returned to their institutions.
Vigilante groups persist in rural communities
The Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office has issued criminal citations to three men accused of setting up illegal roadblocks in the rural community of Corbett, Oregon.
The incident occurred as hysteria over looters and false rumors of politically-motivated arsonists spread on social media following the widespread and devastating wildfires that began sweeping through Oregon on Labor Day.
More details of the traffic stops surfaced this week as The Guardian reported Latoya Robinson, an African American woman, was among those stopped. Robinson is a resident of Sandy and had evacuated to a friend’s home due to the Riverside Fire.
Robinson told the newspaper that heavily armed men stopped her with her children and questioned: “You’re not from around here, are you?”
Among the casualties of Oregon’s fires? Oregon’s fish.
As wildfires raged through Oregon, staff at fish hatcheries around the state raced to try to save – or prematurely release – millions of chinook salmon, steelhead and trout being raised in captivity to preserve fragile fish species, state officials said Thursday.
About 450,000 fish perished at two hatcheries combined and nearly 1.2 million chinook, steelhead and trout were released into the McKenzie River east of Eugene all at once in desperation as the fire approached and fresh water to the facility was cut off. Other hatcheries lost critical infrastructure, including a hatchery building near the Oregon-California border, and one facility went ahead with a critical breeding period while running on limited power from a back-up generator.
State wildlife officials are still assessing the extent of the damage and the impact of the mass deaths and mass releases on the hatchery program and the full situation might not be clear for weeks, said ODFW’s Deputy Director Shannon Hurn. The agency is also bracing for mudslides that occur when winter rains hit the burned areas and push debris into rivers and streams.
“We are still very much in the emergency response phase,” Hurn said.