Hot, dry weather and high winds will make the next few days especially dangerous for wildfires, Gov. Kate Brown and state fire officials warned during an online press conference Thursday.
Oregon has seven large active fires burning more than 168,000 acres across the state, Brown said. Conditions headed into the weekend mean those fires could grow and any new sparks could quickly result in out-of-control blazes, said Travis Medema, the chief deputy state fire marshal.
“As we look at the forecast and estimate what conditions will be across the landscape, the combination of really dry winds, low relative humidities and an unstable atmosphere can lead to explosive fire growth,” he said. “We’re very concerned about the next 72 hours and what that means.”
Most of the state is at risk for severe fires, Medema said, but fire officials are most concerned about damage from strong easterly winds in the Columbia River Gorge area and south to Douglas County.
The largest current fire, the Double Creek Fire in the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest, nearly doubled in size Wednesday and has burned more than 100,000 acres. Both that fire and the Sturgill Fire slightly to the west in Wallowa County have been declared conflagrations, which means they’ve grown too big for local firefighters to manage and the state has taken over.
Oregonians throughout the state should be careful to avoid causing fires, Medema said. Along with not intentionally starting fires, state officials say Oregonians should stick to driving on hard surfaces, like paved or gravel roads, make sure tow chains are secured and tires and exhaust systems are in good condition before driving and avoid using tools that could create sparks, such as chainsaws or lawnmowers.
“As you’re out and about, do everything you can to limit one spark, because one spark could cause a significant wildfire under these severe conditions,” Medema said.
Hundreds of homes are already under some level of an evacuation notice, and about 42,500 customers of Pacific Power and Portland General Electric have been warned about losing power as early as midnight because they’re in high-risk areas.
Maria Pope, CEO of Portland General Electric, said during the press conference that more of the company’s roughly 900,000 customers should be prepared for short-term power losses if wind damages electric equipment. The company provides electricity to many in Portland and the north Willamette Valley.
“Please have a plan and be ready for the loss of power,” Pope said.
Both power companies will operate shelters for people who have lost power, and other cooling centers will be available as needed. Temperatures are expected to reach highs of 99 degrees in Salem and Eugene on Saturday, with hotter-than-usual temperatures throughout much of the state.
Smoke from current fires in Oregon and other states will also reach far beyond the fires themselves. Oregonians, especially those with respiratory conditions, should try to limit their time outdoors and refrain from strenuous activities while smoke is an issue, Brown said.
People throughout the state should make sure their phones and other devices are fully charged and that they have water and nonperishable food in case they lose power or have to evacuate, said Andrew Phelps, the state emergency management director.
“This is really about doing what you can, where you are, with what you have,” Phelps said.
Oregon had a slow start to its fire season, thanks to cold, rainy weather through the late spring, but ongoing drought conditions meant grasses and other vegetation spent all summer drying out.
“We’re really at what I would characterize as the apex of fire season, where fuels have been drying all season long,” Medema said.
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