Now that the extreme weather has moderated, firefighters beginning to make progress on fires in northwest Oregon

Map of fires in northwest Oregon, September 13, 2020 Riverside Beachie Creek Lionshead
Map of fires in northwest Oregon, September 13, 2020.

Lionshead Fire

Of the three very large fires south of Portland, Oregon the 138,718-acre Lionshead has been the most active in the last 24 hours, with most of the growth occurring on the northeast and southeast sides. Crews continue to secure and protect property and conduct damage assessments as fire activity, smoke, and other hazards allow. Wildfires have not burned in the area for many decades, which has resulted in heavy layers of fuel on the ground that firefighters must work through to construct fireline and mop up, a very laborious and time-consuming process.

Resources assigned to the fire include 51 hand crews, 62 engines, and 10 helicopters for a total of 1,482 personnel.

Air quality on the Lionshead Fire
Air quality on the Lionshead Fire, Sept 11, 2020. InciWeb photo.

Riverside Fire

On the Riverside Fire dozers completed a line around spot fires on the west side to help secure the areas closest to the communities of Estacada and Molalla. On Sunday crews were working on the north side above the North Fork Reservoir, looking at opportunities to move towards the east. Firefighters are using two unmanned aerial systems (UAS, or drones) to assess fire conditions from the air. Helicopters are flying when visibility allows.  The blaze has burned 53 structures at last count, and 133,799 acres, and is still a mile away from the Beachie Creek Fire. Resources assigned to the fire include 8 hand crews, 11 engines, and 3 helicopters for a total of 315 personnel.

“You’ll start in the coming days to see some lines showing containment” on the Riverside fire said Alan Sinclair, incident commander for the Type 1 incident management team. “We’re having a little bit more favorable weather and things are coming together.”

Riverside Fire
Riverside Fire, from La Dee Flats September 9, 2020. InciWeb photo.

Beachie Creek Fire

Fog slowed activity of the fire and firefighters on the 188,374-acre Beachie Creek Fire Sunday. After it dissipated firefighters resumed work on the perimeter and accessing damage to structures. Crews and heavy equipment are tying in the control lines on the west and northwest sides. The Beachie Creek and the Riverside Fires remain about one mile apart. Resources assigned to the fire include 11 hand crews, 45 engines, and 7 helicopters for a total of 563 personnel.

Three Area Command Teams (ACT) were mobilized Thursday to assist local units in suppressing the fires in the western states. One of them, led by Area Commander Joe Stutler, will be coordinating the efforts in northwest Oregon. The other two will be California.

Oregon fires have burned about a million acres

An Area Command Team has been mobilized to assist local units in the state

structures burned Almeda Fire Phoenix Talent Oregon
Devastation from the Almeda Drive Fire in the area of Phoenix and Talent in southern Oregon. Screenshot from video shot by Jackson County on September 8, 2020.

It could take some time to count all of the structures that have burned in western Oregon. What is known so far about the huge fires that have burned approximately a million acres in the state is the deaths of seven people have been documented according to state officials. Dozens more, they said, are unaccounted for, but many of those could be safe and are having difficulty communicating with friends and relatives.

The number of people that have evacuated has been fluctuating wildly. The Oregonian reported that the state in a news release Thursday night said an “estimated 500,000 Oregonians have been evacuated and that number continues to grow.” The half-million figure received widespread attention, but after an analysis by the newspaper determined that number could not be accurate, Gov. Kate Brown acknowledged Friday the true number to be far lower, about 40,000. She explained that the higher figure included everyone in some category of evacuation, including “Be Set,” and “Be Ready.”

Map heat wildfires western U.S.
Map of heat detected on wildfires in the western U.S. by satellites September 12, 2020.

The weather next week is expected to be cooler, with decreasing winds and a slight chance of rain on Tuesday and Thursday. This should slow the spread of the blazes and enable firefighters to shift from evacuations to constructing fireline on the perimeters. Up until now, a very, very small percentage of the edges of the fires have containment line.

Doug Grafe, chief of fire protection at the Oregon Department of Forestry, said eight of the large fires “will be on our landscape until the winter rains fall. Those fires represent close to 1 million acres … We will see smoke and we will have firefighters on those fires up until the heavy rains.”

Three Area Command Teams (ACT) were mobilized Thursday to assist local units in suppressing the fires in the western states. One of them, led by Area Commander Joe Stutler, will be coordinating the efforts in northwest Oregon. The other two will be California.

Typically an ACT is used to oversee the management of large incidents or those to which multiple Incident Management Teams have been assigned. They can take some of the workload off the local administrative unit when they have multiple incidents going at the same time. Your typical Forest or Park is not usually staffed to supervise two or more Incident Management Teams fighting fire in their area. An ACT can provide decision support to Multi-Agency Coordination Groups for allocating scarce resources and help mitigate the span of control for the local Agency Administrator. They also ensure that incidents are properly managed, coordinate team transitions, and evaluate Incident Management Teams.

structures burned Almeda Fire Phoenix Talent Oregon
Devastation from the Almeda Drive Fire in the area of Phoenix and Talent in southern Oregon. Screenshot from video shot by Jackson County on September 8, 2020.
Satellite photo smoke wildfires
Satellite photo showing smoke from wildfires at 5:17 p.m. PDT September 11, 2020.

Wildfires have burned over 800 square miles in Oregon

Four fires east of Interstate 5, from Portland south to Eugene, are each larger than 100,000 acres.

map fires Oregon Portland
Map showing heat detected by satellites within the last 24 hours on fires in the Portland-Eugene area, Sept 10, 2020.

At least 50 fires have burned over 800 square miles in Oregon, and again on Wednesday, dry, breezy weather kept them growing.  Governor Kate Brown said that during this fire siege the state will likely experience the greatest loss of property and lives from wildfires in its history. This a result of the confluence of several factors, including drought and lightning, along with hot, dry, and very windy weather.

The Oregon Office of Emergency Management has created an interactive website to help provide information about evacuations statewide.

The Beachie Creek Fire 17 miles east of Salem started August 16. On September 6 it was 469 acres but the historic wind storm the next day caused it to grow overnight to 131,000 acres. On September 9 it was mapped at 182,000 acres and was 19 miles east of Salem. Fire personnel had to evacuate their incident command post after electrical lines and transformers were destroyed during the wind event. An update from the incident management team on September 9 said “mass evacuations are being planned”. The east side of the Beachie Creek Fire has merged with the Lionshead Fire. The fire organization has a Facebook page with evacuation information.

The 109,223-acre Lionshead Fire started August 16 on the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs Reservation 14 miles west of the Warm Springs community and has spread to the Willamette National Forest merging into the east side of the Beachie Creek Fire. It is actively growing on the west side of the Cascades. Long range spotting contributed to the fire spreading for 12 miles reaching areas near Breitenbush and Detroit Lake. The fire also crossed highway 22 in multiple places.  More information can be found on Facebook.

The Holiday Farm Fire, also known as the McKenzie Fire, has burned 144,694 acres about 14 miles east of Eugene. Evacuations are in effect; the Lane County government and  Linn County Sheriff’s office has more information. On Wednesday fire behavior and weather conditions were still treacherous and kept firefighters from accessing many areas, but they were able to protect some structures by burning out around them to remove flammable vegetation. Winds on Thursday are expected to shift and begin blowing out of the west and relative humidity is expected to be in the low teens.  These weather conditions may contribute to another day of very active fire behavior.

The 120,000-acre Riverside Fire is southeast of both Oregon City and Portland. Most of the spread in the last 24 hours was on the southwest and northwest sides. The blaze moved four miles down the Clackamas River corridor towards the communities of Estacada and Springwater. Crews worked overnight to continue point protection efforts on homes and other critical infrastructure in that area and along Highway 211. On Thursday firefighters hope to take advantage of predicted lighter winds during the afternoon to conduct critical air operations. However, changing wind directions throughout the day could spur additional fire growth in multiple directions. Thursday morning fire officials estimated it was approximately two air miles from the community of Estacada, Oregon. The Clackamas County Sheriff’s office has information about evacuations that are in effect.

The Echo Mountain Complex has burned 2,297 acres south and east of Otis at the intersection of Highways 101 and 18. Evacuations are in effect. It is burning on both the north and south sides of 18. The Oregon Department of Forestry reports that local firefighters and ODF personnel have been out in force around the clock on the fire lines, but outside help is very limited due to the large number of fires across the state. Matt Thomas of ODF said Wednesday there has been no containment yet, and that may not happen for an extended period of time. More information is on the ODF’s West Oregon District Facebook Page.