Southwest Oregon and Northwest California — a hotbed of fire activity for at least 20 years

map history of fires in Northwest California and Southwest Oregon
A partial history of fires in Northwest California and Southwest Oregon, 2000 through Sept 17, 2020.

The Northwest California/Southwest Oregon area has kept firefighters very busy at times during the last 20 years, as you can see on the map above.

A new fire is rapidly putting itself into that history. The Slater Fire reported September 8 grew to 89,000 acres by September 9 and has now spread to 150,000 acres. That growth, however, has slowed in the last several days.

It started northeast of Happy Camp, California and ran north into Oregon then took a left and crossed Highway 199. It has come to within about four miles of the 2002 Biscuit Fire.

If recent fire history is any indication, the Slater Fire may not even slow down when and if it reaches the Biscuit burn, and of course it depends on the weather, which has moderated this week. The 2017 Chetco Bar Fire and the 2018 Klondike Fire burned for miles into the then 17 or 18-year old fire scar. The entire eastern two-thirds of the Chetco Bar Fire was in the footprint.

Strong winds that drove the dozens of fires September 8 in Oregon are not super rare. The Klondike Fire west of Grants Pass started July 15, 2018. In early October it had become virtually dormant, but a few hot spots were revitalized by an east wind event on the 14th. According to an article in the Mail Tribune the suddenly vigorous fire was transporting burning embers that started spot fires six miles out ahead of the flaming front:

“Extreme spotting” propelled fine embers up to six miles ahead of the main fire, dropping the live ash right between firefighters’ tents and close to people’s homes.

“We even had to move our own fire camp,”  [information officer Kale] Casey said.

So if the weather this year is anything like it was two years ago, firefighters could be busy in the area for at least another month.

Slater Fire
Slater Fire, Sept. 15, 2020. InciWeb.

Comparing the Haines Index with the Hot-Dry-Windy Index

In a comment on the earlier post about the Hot-Dry-Windy Index (HDW), Brian Potter, a research meteorologist with the U.S. Forest Service, offered to provide some preliminary results looking at how HDW performed during the 2017 Chetco Bar Fire in Oregon, as well as how the Haines index performed during that fire.

The HDW is a new tool developed for firefighters to predict weather conditions which can affect the spread of wildfires. It is described as being very simple and only considers the atmospheric factors of heat, moisture, and wind.

Mr. Potter has provided three figures showing the weather indices computed from the National Weather Service’s NAM model analyses. Because they use a different model from the HDW website, he does not have historic percentile values for HDW, but they are illustrative, nonetheless. These are preliminary data and have not been through peer review or evaluation.

Here is a graph of HDW values compared to growth on the Chetco Bar Fire:hot dry windy index fire growth

Here are the Haines Index values for the mid-elevation version of the Index:

Haines index fire growth

And the high elevation version of the Haines Index:

Haines index fire growth

Mr. Potter said he has some thoughts about the graphs, but is interested in hearing what others take away from them.

The Chetco Bar Fire in southwest Oregon started July 12, 2017 and burned over 191,000 acres.

Chetco Bar Fire map
Map showing the location of the Chetco Bar Fire (on the left) in southwest Oregon, October 2, 2017. USFS.

Timeline of Chetco Bar Megafire shows decisions made during initial attack

The fire has burned 191,000 acres.

Above: The Chetco Bar Fire on July 13, 2017, day two, as seen from a helicopter during the Type 3 Incident Commander’s first recon flight.

Originally published at 10:47 a.m. MDT October 2, 2017.

In mid-August when the Chetco Bar Fire in southwest Oregon quadrupled in size during a four-day period from 22,042 to 97,758 acres, some began wondering, in comments on this site and other venues, why the U.S. Forest Service did not suppress it soon after it was reported by a commercial airline pilot at 2:42 p.m. July 12.

Since it started the fire has burned 191,090 acres and cost taxpayers almost $61 million.

Chetco Bar Fire map
Map showing the location of the Chetco Bar Fire (on the left) October 2, 2017. USFS.

The USFS has released a high tech timeline presentation that highlights some of the decisions and events that occurred during the course of the fire. It is embedded at the bottom of this article. Some of the interactive map features may not work — if that is the case, you can view it the USFS website.

The fire started from a lightning strike during a storm on June 24 and 25 and was spotted by the airline pilot 17 days later. The timeline does not mention if infrared flights or any other detection methods were used that possibly could have resulted in an initial attack on the fire soon after it started rather than more than two weeks later.

(All articles on Wildfire Today about the Chetco Bar Fire can be found here.)

A fixed wing Air Attack ship was dispatched after the airliner pilot’s report. Air Attack recommended dispatching a Single Engine Air Tanker (SEAT), a helicopter for water bucket support, and inserting rappellers. At that time the fire had burned about half an acre.

The first four firefighters rappelled into the area an hour and 32 minutes after the first report. Three helicopters dropped 17,280 gallons of water on the fire that afternoon and evening until after 9 p.m., but no air tankers worked the fire until a SEAT made two drops on the second day, July 13. While the helicopters dropped water, the four firefighters built a helispot. At the end of the first day Air Attack reported the fire was holding at three-quarters of an acre.

On day two a second load of four rappellers was sent to the fire. Below is an excerpt from the USFS timeline, and following that, the high-tech timeline:


“[On day two, July 13, the second load of four rappellers] were given a briefing, then loaded in the helicopter at 9 a.m. to fly the 20 minutes to the fire location. From the air, the fire appeared to have grown to about 10 acres overnight, with a few areas of isolated smoke columns. The crew noted the steep ground, the old burn scar and the fact the fire was burning mid-slope. They could see a lot of rollout (burning debris rolling below the main fire). Due to the remoteness of the area and the steep topography, the crew requested a few more orbits around the fire to gather more intelligence from the high vantage point.

“Upon landing, their perspective changed. “The ground was really, really steep. We know views from the air can be deceiving, but we couldn’t see the fire or the smoke from the helispot. I originally thought the trees below the helispot were reproduction from an old fire, but then I realized the slope was so steep I was only seeing the tree tops. They were actually 200 foot tall, 4-foot DBH (diameter at breast height) trees,” said a senior firefighter on the second load of rappellers.

“One rappeller began scouting for an escape route along the ridge to the north of the helispot, and found extremely dense vegetation with manzanita, tan oak and madrone, along with dead and downed logs. The ground was covered with madrone leaves that were slick – combined with the steep terrain, it made staying upright a challenge.

Continue reading “Timeline of Chetco Bar Megafire shows decisions made during initial attack”

Extreme mopup

Soldiers training firefighting
Oregon Army National Guard Soldiers during a firefighting training exercise at the Oregon Department of Public Safety Standards and Training in Salem, Oregon, August 28, 2017.

The U.S. Forest Service distributed this photo on Twitter September 17 that shows at least 90 Oregon Army National Guard Soldiers during a firefighting training exercise at the Oregon Department of Public Safety Standards and Training in Salem, Oregon, August 28, 2017.

Nearly 125 Citizen-Soldiers from the 41st Infantry Brigade Combat Team volunteered to join the second iteration of personnel, also known as NG-2, activated by Governor Kate Brown to assist with wildfires across the state of Oregon. The Oregon National Guard is currently assigned to three  fires in central and southern Oregon; the Whitewater, High Cascades Complex, and Chetco Bar fires. (Photo by Sgt. 1st Class April Davis, Oregon Military Department Public Affairs)

In addition to the National Guard, 200 members of the active duty military were activated from Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington earlier this month. Initially they were assigned to the Umpqua North Complex of fires 50 miles east of Roseburg, Oregon.

Satellite photo, wildfires in the Northwest

The satellite photo shows smoke from vegetation fires in the northwestern United States on August 31, 2017. The red dots represent heat detected by a satellite at 4:18 a.m. MDT September 1, 2017.

Update on Chetco Bar Fire and other wildfires in the Northwest

Above: Satellite photo from August 27, 2017 showing smoke created by fires in the Northwestern United States, including Chetco Bar, Liberty, Rice Ridge, and Jolly Mountain Fires. The red dots on the map represent heat detected by the satellite on August 28.

(Originally published at 9:55 a.m. MDT August 28, 2017)

The Chetco Bar Fire in Southwest Oregon has not been growing as quickly in recent days as it did earlier when it quadrupled in size over four days and crossed the 100,000-acre threshold. The most recent mapping puts it at almost 108,000 acres. The area is under a Red Flag Warning on through Tuesday for gusty southwest winds and low humidities which could result in increased burning intensity and rapid fire growth.

The 4,400-acre Jolly Mountain Fire in Central Washington is near a Red Flag Warning area. Fire officials’ expectations for Monday:

Southern and western flanks of the fire will become active with uphill crown runs both on the east and west sides of West Fork drainage. SE flank will continue to back downslope. Fire will become increasingly active as it spreads to the south, where it loses its downslope effect and in more exposed to general winds. Fire likely to cross Sasse Ridge to the west.

liberty fire dozer
A dozer passes through an area where firefighters are working on the Liberty Fire. Undated & uncredited Inciweb photo.

The 12,800-acre Liberty Fire has been burning northeast of Missoula, Montana since July 15 while the Rice Ridge Fire, not far away, has spread over 27,800 acres since it started two weeks later. Hot, dry weather on Monday could cause both blazes to become more active.