Facing high temperatures and strong winds, Oregon prepares for increased fire risk

By Rob Manning (OPB), April Ehrlich (OPB), Todd Milbourn (OPB) and Jeff Thompson (OPB)
Sept. 8, 2022 9:44 p.m. Updated: Sept. 9, 2022 12:42 a.m.
In this photo provided by the Cedar Creek Frie Incident Command, the plume of the Cedar Creek Fire is seen from Round Mountain Lookout on Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2022.

In this photo provided by the Cedar Creek Frie Incident Command, the plume of the Cedar Creek Fire is seen from Round Mountain Lookout on Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2022.

Cedar Creek Fire Incident Command via InciWeb

Oregon’s wildfire season has become more threatening this week, with evacuations in some parts of the state, smoky skies elsewhere, schools canceled ahead of planned power outages, and hundreds of thousands of acres now ablaze. Here are highlights from news across the region:

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Weekend weather poses a significant risk of wildfire

Fire officials painted a dire picture of the weather expected this weekend during a Thursday press conference alongside Oregon Gov. Kate Brown.

“The combination of really dry winds, low relative humidity, and an unstable atmosphere can lead to explosive fire growth,“ said Travis Medema, chief deputy state fire marshal. “And we are very concerned about the next 72 hours and what that means, both in terms of new fires that start, but also larger fires on the landscape.”

Medema said over 360 homes are under some level of evacuation due to wildfires across the state. In northeastern Oregon near the community of Joseph, over 100 homes are under evacuation due to the Double Creek Fire, which is burning through over 100,000 acres near the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area.

Another 260 homes in Klamath County are under evacuation due to the Van Meter Fire, 13 miles southeast of Klamath Falls. Medema said that fire “grew rapidly” Wednesday night.

Meanwhile, many fire agencies were able to leave the Rum Creek Fire area burning in Josephine County, which is starting to stabilize, Medema said.

Utilities plan outages for more than 42,000 customers

More than 42,000 Oregonians will likely lose electricity as utilities plan to shut off power to prevent electrical equipment from potentially starting wildfires, utility company representatives said Thursday.

“There’s no question that such significant high winds will result in damage to utility power equipment,” said Maria Pope, chief executive officer and president of Portland General Electric. “We will work as quickly, and most importantly, as safely as possible to restore power.”

Pope said PGE will “very likely” shut off power to about 30,000 of its customers in high-wildfire-risk areas. Pacific Power expects to shut power to about 12,500 of its customers, PacifiCorp Vice President Allen Berreth said.

Emergency officials said all Oregonians should be prepared, regardless of where they live.

“Now is the time to charge your devices, ensure you have flashlights and batteries and those essentials like non-perishable food and water and extra medication in case you have to go without power for a couple of days or you need to evacuate your home due to a threat of wildfire,” Oregon Department of Emergency Management Director Andrew Phelps said during the conference.

One of the most important steps Oregonians can take to prepare for potential outages is to update their contact information with their utility service, said Kandi Young, public information officer with the Oregon Public Utility Commission.

During an interview with OPB, Young said utilities reach out directly to customers via cell phone and email, so it’s vital that information is up to date.

Young urged Oregonians to prepare for planned shutoffs. But she said people might also lose power beyond those areas if high winds damage power lines. ”It’s a wind and weather event we’re expecting.

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“Customers might receive an outage due to weather and not necessarily because it’s a planned outage,” she said. The Oregon PUC regulates Oregon’s three investor-owned utilities: PGE, PacifiCorp and Idaho Power. Under a 2021 law, utilities must produce a public report detailing the steps they’re taking to prevent wildfires.

In Multnomah County, officials urged residents to keep phones charged and make plans in case of power outages.

Schools close over power outages

Several Oregon schools will be closed Friday due to planned power outages, meant to guard against the rising risks of wildfires over the next few days.

The Santiam Canyon and Sweet Home school districts are both in parts of Linn County that Pacific Power has said will lose power overnight Thursday. Both districts have canceled school in response.

In a message sent to customers, Pacific Power said the lights will start to go out at midnight.

“The Public Safety Power Shutoff will affect approximately 12,000 customers and begin at around 12:01 a.m on Friday, September 9 and could last through Saturday evening,” the utility said.

The National Weather Service is anticipating high temperatures and strong winds — conditions that could fuel fires across a large part of the state.

In a statement to the Santiam Canyon school community, Superintendent Todd Miller said the challenges created for schools and families by a loss of electricity made closing school the only option.

“I don’t like canceling school, especially the first week, but there are too many safety factors that play into this decision,” Miller said. “First off, this event may be traumatizing for many who went through this two years ago and you want to hunker down with family.”

In September 2020, wildfires fueled by similar weather conditions tore through several parts of Oregon, including the Santiam Canyon, with downed power lines playing a role.

Miller pointed out that a lack of power also would make it difficult for teachers and students to see in dark classrooms and restrooms, and for staff to prepare meals for students. Miller said that communication could be interrupted, too, “which is a safety risk.”

Miller also said transportation to and from school could be less safe without power.

“All of this leads to one decision, the closing of school on Friday.”

Fires grow Thursday

The Double Creek Fire, burning in Eastern Oregon’s Wallowa-Whitman National Forest, nearly doubled in size Wednesday, due to hot, dry conditions and gusty winds.

Fire officials reported Thursday morning that the fire had grown to 100,977 acres. And it was still 0% contained. The town of Imnaha and areas just north and south were under Level 3 “Go Now” evacuations.

A total of 553 fire personnel were assigned to the Double Creek Fire as of Thursday morning. The fire has been burning since Aug. 30 and was caused by lightning.

A nearby group of three fires in the Eagle Cap Wilderness is burning another 30,000 acres as of Thursday morning.

In Central Oregon, the Cedar Creek Fire east of Oakridge was over 30,000 acres and 18% contained. That fire spurred new Level 3 evacuations for several recreational areas and campgrounds in Linn, Deschutes and Klamath counties.

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