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Fires burn through the state and the West

Under orange smoke-filled skies, firefighters remove a tree that fell across the highway in the Holiday Farm Fire near Springfield. (Oregon State Fire Marshal)
By Cindy Yingst, Sunday, September 13, 2020

Fires burned throughout the state and the West this week, causing suffocating air quality, closing highways and forcing the evacuation of large areas.

Tinderbox conditions forced the closure of Clatsop and Tillamook state forests, all Bureau of Land Management public lands, and many state parks, including Silver Falls, Detroit Lake, North Santiam, and Collier Memorial. The parks were evacuated early Tuesday as fires and heavy smoked pushed closer to them. Cape Lookout near Tillamook also was closed due to power outages and limited water supply.

All timber resources owned by Weyerhaeuser, Greenwood Resources and other companies were closed to the public.

During Labor Day weekend, Warrenton Fire Department drove through the KOA and Fort Stevens campgrounds, ensuring everyone had doused their campfires, which were banned during the weekend.

Warrenton had three firefighters return last week from California, where they helped the state with major wildfires near Napa. Less than a week later, on Tuesday, three more firefighters were sent to Stayton, where they are battling the conflagration near Salem.

Firefighters from Gearhart, Knappa and Seaside were sent to the Powerline Fire near Gaston on Tuesday and Wednesday.

A small fire started Tuesday on Jade Place near Southwest Ninth Street in Warrenton when someone threw fireworks out a window, Fire Chief Brian Alsbury told city commissioners Tuesday night.

“What’s your assessment of fire risk in the dunes?” Mayor Henry Balensifer said. “How far are we from somebody making a dumb mistake?”

Alsbury responded: “Conditions, I hesitate to say, are perfect. It’s just a matter of time.”

Oregon Department of Forestry described the state’s situation as “extreme fire activity, fueled by a rare fire weather event with low humidity and strong east winds.”

The state made the decision to close Clatsop and Tillamook forests Wednesday due to the fire conditions statewide, coupled with limited resources because the entire West seems to be burning. The closure is in effect at least through Sunday, Sept. 13.

“It’s best not to visit any state parks until conditions improve,” said Chris Havel, associate director of Oregon Parks. “If you do travel to a park, or anywhere else for that matter, give space to emergency personnel and be prepared for unexpected closures.”

Coastal communities, which usually see wind coming from the ocean, were covered with a blanket of smoke pushed by winds coming from the east.

About 35 wildfires burned more than 300,000 acres throughout Oregon this week. At a news briefing Wednesday, Gov. Kate Brown said several communities had been “substantially destroyed.”

In the small communities of Phoenix and Talent, north of Medford, an estimated 1,000 homes were lost. Detroit, in central Oregon, and Vida, east of Eugene, also took huge hits.

Lincoln City was evacuated Wednesday as the Echo Mountain Fire pushed toward the city. Throughout the state, the Red Cross set up evacuation centers at Thurston High School in Springfield, Deschutes County Fairgrounds, Clackamas Community College, Douglas County Fairgrounds, Oregon State Fairgrounds in Salem, and Taft High School in Lincoln City.

In Washington state, nearly 350,000 acres had burned and evacuations were called for residents in Bonney Lake and Tacoma. Many homes in Malden, in the eastern part of the state, plus the fire department and the post office were destroyed by fire.

Wind was expected to shift toward the southeast early Thursday, which was expected to bring the heaviest smoke toward Clatsop County, Public Health Department officials said. The poor air quality will last through the weekend.

At some point, smoke that already worked its way offshore earlier this week is expected to return with the wind shift, potentially impacting the state and county a second time.

The hazardous air quality could cause serious health impacts for all people, especially those with respiratory conditions.

In addition to fires, winds earlier in the week knocked out power to 28,000 customers statewide, Pacific Power reported. Residents of Arch Cape and Cannon Beach in Clatsop County were without power Tuesday. The utility continued to work Wednesday to restore power in Jackson, Josephine, Lincoln and Marion counties.

Communications staff set up a station near Salem to transmit updates on the state's 35 wildfires. (Oregon State Fire Marshal)

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