Heat, Winds Fuel Destructive Northwest Wildfires

By Andrew Selsky and Nicholas K. Geranios | September 10, 2020

SALEM, Ore. — Strong winds and high temperatures continued to fuel catastrophic fires in many parts of Oregon on Wednesday, forcing thousands of people to flee from their homes. Huge wildfires also continued to grow in neighboring Washington state.

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown declared a statewide emergency as blazes grew in Marion, Lane, Jackson, Coos, Lincoln, Washington and Clackamas counties.

“This is proving to be an unprecedented and significant fire event for our state,” Brown said Tuesday.

The biggest blazes in Oregon were burning in Marion County, where the Santiam and Lionshead fires had burned through roughly 200,000 (80,930 hectares) acres of wooded canyonlands. Wind storms downed power lines and tens of thousands of poeople remained without power in the northwest Oregon and southwest Washington Wednesday morning.

Four major wildfires continued to burn in Clackamas County, including one sparked by a motorist towing another vehicle. A recreational vehicle towing a smaller vehicle was emitting sparks that started one brush fire Tuesday night, the local sheriff’s office tweeted.

Patrica Fouts sat inside a wildfire evacuation facility in Salem, Oregon, in a motorized wheelchair — one of scores of people at the fairgrounds who fled wind-fueled blazes that burned more land in the Northwest in a day than is usually destroyed in an entire fire season.

“It was scary,” Fouts, 73, said Tuesday of her evacuation from a senior center as she cradled her dog Murphy. “Especially as red as the sky was.”

The fires in the Northwest destroyed a small town in eastern Washington, caused power outages, highway closures and forced Oregon officials to move hundreds of prisoners out of harm’s way. Schools in both states closed because of fire danger and power outages.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said more than 330,000 acres (133,546 hectares) burned in Washington in a 24-hour period _ more than burns during most fire seasons.

“It’s an unprecedented and heart-breaking event,” Inslee said at a news conference, blaming heat, high winds and low humidity for the explosive growth of fires.

Washington Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz said thousands of people were affected by the fires, but there appeared to be no deaths or injuries.

The high winds and dry fuels in the Northwest are similar to conditions in California, where thousands of firefighters are battling dozens of fires around the state.

In Oregon, Brown approved an emergency conflagration declaration that freed up state resources for several wildfires that exceed the capabilities of local crews. At a news conference, she said initial reports show some blazes may have been caused by downed power lines.

Officials said their priority is evacuating people and protecting lives. Near a fire burning east of Eugene, people were unable to evacuate for a time Tuesday afternoon because of roads blocked by fire and debris, according to the Oregon State fire marshal. Fire crews eventually helped 46 people escape that area, the fire marshal said.

As winds shift and slow Thursday, authorities said they hope to take a more “offensive approach” and assess damage.

Authorities evacuated three prisons in Salem because of wildfire threats, sending about 1,400 inmates to the Oregon State Penitentiary.

During the last two weeks, there have been 3,000 firefighters on the ground fighting blazes in Oregon.

A grass fire in Ashland in southern Oregon closed down a section of Interstate 5, the main north-south freeway along the West Coast. Authorities were telling residents on Tuesday evening northwest of Ashland along I-5, including all residents in the small city of Phoenix and some in Medford, to evacuate.

In Marion County, which includes the state capital of Salem, a blaze prompted evacuation orders Tuesday in the western foothills of the Cascade Range.

Among those evacuated to the Oregon State Fairgrounds were 160 residents of the Marian Estates independent senior living center in Sublimity, Oregon. The fire was so close it blotted out the morning sun as workers hustled out the elderly residents.

“It was pitch black dark out there _ all you could see was red,” said Wendy Phelps-Chapman, activity director at the center who on Tuesday took on the task of evacuating residents. She made two trips on a bus with residents to the fairgrounds in Salem, the state capital 15 miles away. Volunteers transported walkers and wheelchairs.

Phelps-Chapman had two wear two masks just to filter out the airborne ash and be able to breathe.

By early afternoon, 600 people had checked in to the fairgrounds evacuation center, Red Cross spokesman Chad Carter said as more vehicles turned into the parking lot that was already jammed with cars, pickup trucks and campers.

In Idaho, the Idaho State Fire Marshal’s Office said in a social media post that 13 homes were destroyed along with 31 other structures and 26 vehicles near the north-central Idaho town of Orofino. A fast-moving complex of smaller wildfires, covering about 1,600 acres (647 hectares), was burning in the region.

In Washington state, Whitman County Sheriff Brett Myers said a wind-driven fire destroyed an estimated 80% of the homes in the town of Malden, which is about 35 miles (55 kilometers) south of Spokane and has about 200 residents. Malden lost its fire station, post office, City Hall, library and most of its homes, according to the sheriff’s office.

Deputies went door to door and used public-address systems to tell residents to evacuate.

The Washington Department of Natural Resources on Tuesday closed all of the lands it manages east of the Cascades to recreation because of high fire danger.

With no recent lightning storms, the overwhelming majority of wildfires the department is fighting are presumed to be human-caused, the agency said Tuesday.

“We expect hot, dry, fast-moving winds to continue,? Franz said.

Meanwhile, wind, smoke and fire plagued Pierce County south of Seattle on Tuesday morning, closing highways, knocking out power and destroying six homes in the city of Graham.

Associated Press writer Sara Cline contributed from Salem, Oregon. Geranios contributed from Spokane, Washington.

About the photo: A steady stream of vehicles heads west on a road east of Springfield, Ore., as residents evacuate the area ahead of a fast-moving wildfire Tuesday Sept. 8, 2020. (Chris Pietsch/The Register-Guard via AP)

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