Science and Environment

Oregon fires aren’t out but rebuilding time is here

By Erin Ross (OPB) and Dirk VanderHart (OPB)
Sept. 21, 2020 11:43 p.m. Updated: Sept. 22, 2020 2:42 p.m.

Two weeks after wildfires first roared down Oregon’s mountain canyons, the state is slowly taking stock of the damage and starting to rebuild.

Dramatic thunderstorms last weekend brought over an inch of rain to burned areas across the state. And crews made progress containing the fires. But Oregon’s fires are far from extinguished. Incident reports say that the fires are spreading and burning the hottest in clear-cuts and second-growth timber, where slash and detritus left behind from logging has had years to build up and dry.


Active burning also continues far behind containment lines, where flames are slowly encroaching on “green islands” of unburned vegetation. Downed logs, root systems, and tree stumps continue to smolder across the region. While cool, wet weather has helped suppress fire behavior, officials worry that if dry, hot or windy conditions return, any one of those smoldering logs could spark another fire. Early forecasts show unseasonably high temperatures could return in early October.

Susan McMillan's Phoenix home burned down in the Almeda fire.

Susan McMillan's Phoenix home burned down in the Almeda fire.

Kim Lippi

Oregon Department of Transportation crews have been clearing debris from roadways in the burned areas. It’s a long task. High winds and rains over the weekend blew down trees and dislodged rocks and soil. And just because it’s dry, doesn’t mean it’s safe: landslides and rockslides covered sections of Oregon’s roads before last week’s rain events, and gravity will continue to pull newly-unstable rocks and debris down canyons towards highways long after the ground is dry again.

“We have several months of cleanup to do,” said Michael Zimmerman, senior engineering geologist for the Oregon Department of Transportation. Zimmerman said to expect rockfall and construction to cause ongoing intermittent closures on the highways that cross the Cascades. When roads do open, he says drivers should expect to encounter delays, flagging and single-lane traffic “for a long time.”

Cooler, wetter weather is expected to return to the Cascade mountains and foothills in the second half of this week.

Jim Furlow's son gives him a hug on Sept. 10, 2020, in a parking lot shelter in Clackamas County, Oregon. Jim and his wife Tracy were getting ready to evacuate further north as fire officials expanded the county's evacuation zones.

Jim Furlow's son gives him a hug on Sept. 10, 2020, in a parking lot shelter in Clackamas County, Oregon. Jim and his wife Tracy were getting ready to evacuate further north as fire officials expanded the county's evacuation zones.

Jonathan Levinson / OPB

More firefighters have arrived in Oregon after finishing projects in other states. Several hundred personnel from Canada arrived over the weekend, and are expected to head to the fire lines across the state this morning. Even with help, it’s unlikely many of these larger fires will be contained until late October, when Oregon’s fire season officially ends.

As evacuation orders are rolled back to warnings, it’s important to remember that it doesn’t mean the danger is gone. A Level 2 “Get Set” evacuation warning means that there “is a significant danger to your area.” When a Level 2 notice is issued, residents are encouraged to voluntarily evacuate and are not necessarily advised to return.

Individual fire updates:

Riverside Fire:

The Riverside fire was almost 138,00 acres and was 15% contained by midday Monday, with a fireline along the entirety of its western edge. But there were still hotspots near the fire’s boundary, and crews were working to better secure the firelines.

Riverside Incident Commander Alan Sinclair said that there were over 700 personnel currently assigned to the Riverside fire, “So we’ve got what we need, and I’m really pleased with the amount of work that’s been done.”

After a drone was spotted over the burned area Sunday, officials have reminded locals that drones cannot be flown over the area while fire suppression continues. “A mid-air collision could be deadly,” officials wrote in Monday’s fire update.

Level 3 evacuation orders were still in effect Monday for residents near Dowty Road in Clackamas County, and in several communities along Highway 224, including Dodge, Faraday, and parts of Ellwood. Over half of Clackamas County remained under some type of evacuation warning.

Beachie Creek Fire:

East of Salem, officials re-opened western parts of Highway 22 on Sunday, and rolled back evacuation orders for nearly 3,000 homes, stretching from Mehama to Gates. There were over a thousand structures under Level 3 “Leave Now” evacuation notices Monday afternoon, and over 4,500 homes in Level 2 zones. Officials cautioned that people returning to those areas should be prepared to leave at any time, should conditions change.

The Marion County Sheriff’s Department said that anyone returning to or driving through a Level 2 evacuation area, and people with permission to temporarily enter the Level 3 evacuation zones, need to be aware of continuing hazards: hot ash, falling trees, possible rockslides, and other debris.

“A tree may look alive and green; and yet, the fire may have burned the base, making it a falling hazard,” wrote officials in an update for the fire.

Literal roadblocks and steep terrain have kept fire crews from accessing some actively burning areas. ODOT is working to clear fallen trees and rockslides.

The Beachie Creek Fire is 192,736 acres and 38% contained.


Holiday Farm Fire:

New data from an overnight infrared flight reduced the official size of the Holiday Farm Fire by 2,400 acres. It was estimated to be 170,637 acres and17% contained. A 20-mile stretch of Highway 126 remained closed.

On Saturday, search and rescue teams completed operations in the Holiday Farm fire. They searched over 1,500 structures, and did not find any additional victims.Level 3 evacuation notices were rolled back to Level 2 “Get Set” warnings for all areas in the burned region on Sunday. Road closures, downed trees, and debris block many roads in the area, so not all residents will be able to return home.Lane County completed its preliminary damage assessment Monday. So far, 431 residences and 24 non-residential structures have been identified as being destroyed by the fire. Residents can check the status of their property by searching an online database.

Archie Creek Fire:

The Archie Creek Fire east of Roseburg was 131,598 acres. While the weekend’s storms greatly aided firefighting efforts and the fire was considered by Monday to be 41% contained, an infrared flight showed several hotspots burning throughout the fire. At least one small fire appeared outside of the containment lines yesterday. It seems to have started with a lightning strike during Friday’s thunderstorms, and flared up as the weather got warmer and dryer.

Forecasts show another wet, cool weather system moving into the area on Wednesday, which will hopefully bring another half-inch of rain to the fire by the end of the weekend.

Oregon fire damage expected to reach $100 million

The cost of battling Oregon’s large fires this year is expected to top $100 million by mid-October, likely triggering a one-of-a-kind insurance policy for the first time since 2014.

At a state Senate committee hearing Monday, Department of Forestry Fire Protection Chief Doug Grafe told lawmakers the state is burning through approximately $3 million a day fighting fires. That has Oregon on pace to hit its most expensive fire year ever.

Such a milestone would hardly be a surprise. The amount of state-protected land burned so far this year — 534,000 acres — is already 57% larger than the state’s all-time record.

“In ODF’s 100-plus year history, the Tillamook Burn in 1933, along with all the other fires that year, claimed the most ODF-protected acres at 340,000 acres,” State Forester Peter Daugherty noted at the hearing. “Until this month.”

If the state’s cost projections bear out, Oregonians would not be paying all of the firefighting costs. Grafe said he anticipates the Federal Emergency Management Agency would pick up roughly half of the $100 million tab. The remaining $50 million would be largely borne by the state’s general fund.

It’s likely a unique catastrophic fire insurance policy Oregon holds with Lloyd’s of London will also come into play. Under the policy, once the Department of Forestry hits $50 million of firefighting costs in a given year, the next $25 million is covered.

State officials have been instructed to give notice that a claim might be coming, Grafe said.

“At this time we don’t know [if a claim is required] or not, but we’re being proactive,” Grafe said.

The department of forestry is not the only state agency seeing outsized fire costs. Acting state Fire Marshal Mariana Ruiz-Temple told lawmakers that her agency had spent $15 million responding to fires this year, compared to an annual budget of $225,000 for conflagrations.

Climate change dried out the timber. Did it cause the winds, too?

National Weather Service meteorologist Jay Stockton has seen all kinds of weather in his 22-year career. But he’d never seen anything like the conditions that came together on Labor Day to start dozens of fires across the state.

It was a “perfect storm,” without the clouds.

The connection between climate change and the West’s wildfires is well documented and straightforward: fire seasons are getting longer, hotter and drier across Oregon. The unseasonably dry temperatures seen in early September are becoming increasingly common, and that is almost certainly due to climate change. But the wind events that allowed so many fires to start in so many different places, and to spread so fast, are much more rare.

“One of the big questions following Oregon’s 2020 wildfires will be: Just how many links are there to human-caused climate change?” wrote OPB science reporter Jes Burns. Read more about the extreme fire weather, and the underlying climate that caused it.

News you may have missed this weekend

The deadly Almeda Fire burned at least 2,800 structures, some of them apartment buildings,near Medford in Southern Oregon. It killed at least three people before it was contained. But many residents never received any kind of emergency alert and were unaware of the raging fire racing towards them. At the opposite end of the state, advance preparation and quick responses by resort staff saved the ski slopes on Mount Hood from fires.

The number of coronavirus tests administered dropped dramatically across the state as fires forced thousands to flee their homes, hazardous air quality kept people indoors and health centers closed.