Science and Environment

Weekend’s rains are buying time before Oregon wildfires can pick up again

By Erin Ross (OPB)
Sept. 29, 2020 12:01 a.m.
A scene of damage resulting from the 2020 Oregon wildfires in the Santiam Canyon area east of Salem.

Last week’s rains did their job: Oregon’s forest floors got soaked with the kind of moisture that can’t be stopped by one warm day. The Beachie Creek, Riverside, Archie Creek, and Holiday Farm fires, all of them on the west side of the Cascades, grew very little or not at all over the weekend.


For the next few days, the fires in Oregon’s Cascade Mountains are expected to get smokier while warm weather and dry winds cause ground fuels to smolder. People nearby might see columns of smoke coming off the fire, and even trees igniting. Although the fires will become more active as the week goes on, meteorologists assigned to those fires say that it’ll take a few days of dry, warm conditions before the ground will truly dry.

These fires are large, so there’s no one type of fire behavior to expect. How long the ground takes to dry out will depend on elevation, local humidity, and geography. Even the amount of rain within a fire can vary from several inches in one spot, to less than an inch at a lower elevation. But universally, incident commanders say they don’t expect these western Cascades fires to grow or move past containment lines.

The Beachie Creek, Archie Creek, and Holiday Farm fires are all over 55% contained, and almost all of the uncontained areas are far away from where people live. The Riverside Fire remains just 37% contained, but officials say there’s little chance the fire will grow in the next few days.

There’s even good news for the Slater Fire, which is burning south of Cave Junction in Oregon and California. Although it remains the most active fire in the state, officials say they’re seeing fewer hotspots every day, and they expect to send some out-of-state fire crews and equipment resources home.

Even though the fires aren’t expected to grow, they will get smokier. Fire officials continue to ask residents not to call 911 if they see smoke columns rising from a fire’s interior. Fire crews are on the lookout for spot fires, and those unnecessary calls can take up firefighter time and resources.

A request for delaying Oregonians’ deadline to apply for stimulus aid

Wildfires are prompting a request for more time for Oregonians to apply for federal stimulus checks.

The upcoming Wednesday deadline to apply for coronavirus relief from the Internal Revenue Service is fast approaching. But many Oregonians haven’t received the forms they need to apply for an EIP — Economic Impact Payment —better known as stimulus checks. On Sept. 17, the IRS announced that it was sending letters to over 130,000 Oregonians who could be eligible for EIPs but had not filed.


Oregon’s congressional delegation wrote to the U.S. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin to ask the treasury to grant Oregonians an extension through the beginning of December.

“In Oregon and in other states where disasters have disrupted access to the internet and many face mail delays, we urge you to coordinate with the Federal Emergency Management Agency on targeted outreach” to those who hadn’t yet applied for the funds, the delegation wrote. The fires started on Sept. 6. Many people haven’t been to their homes, if their homes still exist, since then. The fires caused disruptions and delays in mail service as roads were closed and people evacuated en masse and would have missed any letters sent to them.

At least 2,357 structures were lost in the Almeda Fire alone, and at least 3,000 people were displaced, per local estimates. Hundreds were lost and thousands displaced in other fires. But the total impacted by wildfires is much larger, and many more people still can’t return to unburned homes because they don’t have electricity, heat, running water, mail service, or phone service. People in evacuation centers might not have internet, so they don’t have a way to file.

Even before the wildfires, Oregonians struggled to file by mail, while others couldn’t file online because the pandemic closed libraries where they would normally access the internet.

Tree fall remains the biggest hazard

The Beachie Creek Fire east of Salem is expected to experience 35 mile-per-hour winds. At the Riverside Fire in Clackamas County, gusts could reach 40-45 miles-per-hour. But conditions are so wet, officials aren’t worried about wind-driven fire spread. They’re much more concerned about falling trees, which have been and continue to be a major threat.

The Oregon Department of Transportation reported that it removed 19,200 downed trees from roads in the area impacted by the Beachie Creek Fire between Sept. 6-28. Officials say trees are going to keep falling as winds return to the region for the next several days. Anyone driving through burned areas is asked to drive slowly and carefully, keep an eye out for hazards in the road, and avoid along shoulders or getting out of the car. Even a tree that looks alive could have sustained damage to its root system.

The roads

One word to describe the path to re-opening Oregon’s highways: slow. The roads have been slow to repair, slow to reopen, and as they reopen, the traffic is slow, too.

On Friday, residents from the western half of McKenzie Bridge to Vida returned home for the first time since the Holiday Farm Fire tore through the area. People who live along Highway 224, which burned in the Riverside Fire, were able to do the same. Right now, both highways are only open to locals, and they have to follow an ODOT pilot car, which only leaves at certain times of the day.

Highway 22 is also closed for a 32-mile-stretch from Gates to New Idanha. It’s been open to local traffic via scheduled pilot car — and locals are told to assume that the trip is going to be one-way since slides and treefall could close the road at any time. From Idanha east to Marion Forks, the highway remains entirely closed.

Last week, ODOT officials said to expect those closures to be “indefinite.” Thousands of burned trees block the roads and more continue to fall. Regular travel over the Cascade Mountains may not resume for a long time.