Oregon Wildfires

Oregon+Wildfires

Miles Meschter, Staff Writer

Oregon is seeing little foresight into when the state’s destructive wildfire season will end. In the wake of autumn, thousand-acre wildfires are burning mountainscapes, valleys and rural communities south and east of the Willamette Valley. Multitudes of residents have been ordered to evacuate hazardous areas, while the rest of Oregon lives under a coat of brown smokey skies. It’s a dire reality people of the state and western region have come to expect. 

The new century has brought a traumatic line of fires, with nine of the ten most destructive seasons occurring since the year 2000. In recent years, megafires such as the Bootleg, Santiam, Slater, and Holiday Farm fires have set historical records and desamated lands of both scenery and society. Flames have reached sagebrush, forest, and residential areas around the state. To date, there are roughly 5 active wildfires burning in Oregon, 3 of which have reached 10,000+ acres. 

East of Oakridge, the Cedar Creek wildfire has exceeded 100,000 acres of forest burned. Flames have reached western edge of Waldo Lake, a 10-square mile camping destination in the local area. Both the Willamette and Deschutes National Forests have enacted emergency closures. Evacuation orders were given last week to rural residents of Lane and Deschutes counties, Including those of Oakridge, a 3,000-person city located by the edge of the Cascade Range. Originally a railroad and lumber town, the community now offers a base for outdoor recreation, holding the motto of ‘Mountain Biking Capital of The Northwest’. Via an announcement on September 15th, the area was downgraded to evacuation level 1, ordering residents to ‘be ready’. Suppression efforts have been in full effect, with a firefighting force numbering 2,600 divided into 58 crews and nearly 100 engines on hand. All accounted for, roughly $78 million state dollars have been invested so far. 

Despite this, progress has been gradual. Over the week containment levels have gone from 0-11%. well-trained fire “hotshot” crews have been able to secure the area east of Waldo Lake, and have begun work on its western shore. In the west zone, the Cedar Creek fire was moderated by cool weather and rain this weekend. The wildland crews have been able to limit the fire’s fuel consumption by removing dead and weakened trees, securing the fireline. For now, firefighters can hope to have better control of the flames as September showers begin to come in.

Further south by the I-5 corridor burns The Rum Creek Fire, which arose from a lightning strike mid-August and has burned more than 20,000 acres. The fire is located west of the town of Merlin and north of the Siskiyou National Forest. Over the past weeks the fire has made dramatic gains due to gusty winds. 

The area is known for its rafting and sport fishing activities on the river. Marlin was historically established as a railroad station, and today numbers 1,600 people. The scenic Hellgate Canyon is a frequent visitor destination. 

Early this month, Merlin was placed on level 1 evacuation orders to ‘be ready’ for evacuation while residents on the city limits received level 2 orders to ‘be set’. Nestled north beside the Rogue River, the nearby unincorporated communities of Rand and Galice were ordered on level 3 to evacuate. The Rum Creek Fire has reached proximity with many residential areas, and has burned multiple homes in its spread. 

Mitigation has been ultimately effective by the efforts of wildland firefighters, the fire has now been rated as 83% contained. Crews have been able to secure many homes from destruction by covering the structures in resistant materials and clearing away surrounding brush that could be fire fuel. Trees were also removed in the residential areas. The wildfire is expected to calm with the incoming rainy weather, which has wettened much of the potential ground fuel.

The largest, longest burning, and yet most isolated of this season’s wildfires has been the Double Creek Fire in far northeast Oregon. The fire has reached nearly 160,000 acres of forest and dry grass burned, beginning in August via lightning strike. Located in the Blue Mountain region, the wildfire has covered the large scenic gorge areas of the Imnaha River and Hells Canyon. The most established community in this area is the town of Imnaha, which holds 30 residents. Although they were placed on level 3 evacuation orders, most have chosen to remain. Fire crews have been tasked with protecting residents south and around the town. ‘Back burns’ have been used to fight the spread, where crews set controlled fires themselves to eliminate fuel that could be added to the larger fire. Other firefighting efforts have included surveying the destruction via drones and speed boats along the Snake River. Despite being at 0% containment for multiple weeks, the efforts by firefighters and beneficial weather have raised containment levels to nearly 40%. Along with those fighting the Rum and Cedar Creek Fires, incoming wet weather is providing an optimistic end for the destruction.

In the final weeks of the wildfire season, Oregonians have witnessed the loss of hundreds-of-thousands of green acres to the flames. Rural residents have been temporarily displaced from their homes, others on close watch. Even with the presence of 3 megafires, others have grown in all corners of the state, multiple within distance of major towns. 

The threat of these wildfires have posed new questions to those of this state on what more can be done on-the-ground to mitigate, and what long term climate actions must be taken for prevention.