Zach Urness and David Davis
Salem Statesman Journal
Published 4:12 AM EDT Sep 8, 2020
UPDATED at 12:10 a.m. with details of evacuations for Santiam Canyon
Fire crews across northwest Oregon are battling extreme winds and historically challenging fire conditions on multiple wildfires across the region.
The 20,600-acre Lionshead Fire, near Mount Jefferson, and 500-acre Beachie Creek Fire, in the Opal Creek Wilderness, are directly in the path of winds that could reach 50 or even 75 mph late Monday and into Tuesday.
It’s like a hurricane hitting a wildfire, officials said.
“The fire weather forecasted is extremely rare and occurs only a few times a century,” said Eric Johnson, Deputy Fire Staff for Northwest Oregon Fire Management.
So far, forest officials have issued evacuation orders or warnings for the Little North Santiam Canyon, Breitenbush area, Detroit Lake area and upper McKenzie River area.
The Mount Jefferson Wilderness, Opal Creek and Olallie Lake areas are closed to recreation, along with a 50-mile stretch of the Pacific Crest Trail.
Statesman Journal reporters will be providing live updates as the “extremely critical” fire weather arrives, which is expected in the late afternoon, evening and into Tuesday.
UPDATE at 12:45 p.m.
Wildfire leads to ‘go now’ evacuation order for large section of McKenzie Valley
The Upper McKenzie Fire Chief expanded the Level 3 “go now” evacuation notice due to a wildfire to include everyone from Leaburg east to the McKenzie Ranger Station, including all roads to the north and south of the highway. The updated evacuation point is Thurston High School for those in Blue River and west of Blue River. Those east of Blue River should travel east toward Sisters.
A Level 3 evacuation notice had been issued to residents of the Holiday Farm RV Park in Blue River earlier Monday night.
“Danger to your area is current or imminent, and you should evacuate immediately,” a news release from Lane County said. “If you choose to ignore this advisement, you must understand that emergency services may not be available to assist you further. DO NOT delay leaving to gather any belongings or make efforts to protect your home.”
A Level 2 “be ready” evacuation notice was issued at the same time for Mill Creek Road to Dearborn Island, and for McKenzie River Drive to McKenzie Highway.
The county asked non-residents to avoid the area.
UPDATE at 12:10 a.m.
‘Go now’ evacuation order for Santiam Canyon
Marion County Sheriff’s office has issued a level 3 – ‘Go now’ – evacuation order for communities along the highway from Mehama east to Detroit including the towns of Mill City, Gates, Detroit and North Fork corridor.
Officials say residents should leave the area immediately and seek shelter outside of the impacted area.
Power outages impacting over 600 Pacific Power customers in the Santiam Canyon were reported as of midnight.
UPDATE at 11:45 p.m.
Highway 22 closed east of Stayton
Highway 22 east of Stayton to the junction with Highway 20 has been closed to allow for evacuations of residents in the Santiam Canyon.
The closure extends from milepost 13 at Stayton to milepost 81 at Santiam Junction, according to the Oregon Department of Transportation.
UPDATE at 10 p.m.
Highway 126 on McKenzie River closed by wildfire, evacuations underway
All lanes are closed on Highway 126 due to a wildfire that is burning near McKenzie Bridge and Blue River, and evacuations are underway.
A cluster of fires were reported at 8:30 p.m. along with a cluster of small fires about 50 miles east of Eugene.
Level 3 evacuations — “meaning go now” — have been ordered for Holiday Farm RV Park. A level 2 evacuation warning — “get set to go” — has been issued for Dearborn Island Road and properties north of Highway 126 between the west entrance of Mckenzie River Drive to Mill Creek Road, according to the Lane County Sheriff’s Office.
A temporary evacuation point is being established at McKenzie High School.
Several engines and additional emergency resources are responding, officials said.
Visit TripCheck.com for the latest road conditions.
UPDATE at 9:25 p.m.
Breitenbush area ordered to ‘Go Now,’ Detroit on level 2 evacuation
Quickly deteriorating conditions near the Beachie Creek and Lionshead Fires burning in remote eastern Marion County have prompted level 3 — “Go now” — evacuations for Breitenbush Hot Springs and the Devil’s Creek summer home community.
Officials with the Marion County Sheriff’s office announced the elevated evacuation levels late Monday evening.
In addition, a level 2 evacuation — “be set” — will go into place Tuesday at noon for the city of Detroit, including areas north of Highway 22 between Gates Hill Road to Breitenbush Road SE.
Update at 9 p.m.:
Smoke bookends Labor Day getaways
Steve and Nicole Cushman planned to stay at Cove Creek Campground through Tuesday for the holiday weekend.
But by Monday evening, they were packing their RV a to return to Portland as thick haze and smoke rolled into the Detroit Lake area.
“You don’t want to be caught in something like that,” Steve Cushman said.
When the couple arrived with their four dogs on Thursday, Cushman said the campgrounds were packed. But by 10 a.m. Monday, it looked “90% empty.”
There were “no issues with (smoke) — not until today, not even this morning,” he said. “We had no clue there was even a fire until we got here.”
— Virginia Barreda
Update at 7:20 p.m.:
PGE will shut off power for 5,000 near Mount Hood
Due to dangerously hot, dry and windy conditions, Portland General Electric announced it will initiate a public safety power shutoff for roughly 5,000 customers in the high-risk fire zone at 7:30 p.m. on Monday near Mount Hood.
“The proactive safety outage is a last resort to help protect people, property and the environment in the face of extreme fire danger conditions and high winds forecast for the area, the company said.
PGE will begin turning off power Monday evening for customers and visitors in heavily forested communities along Highway 26 from Alder Creek and Brightwood to Government Camp. The utility anticipates the outage may last between 24 and 48 hours.
Read more: Widespread power outages across Willamette Valley, Portland metro area
Update at 5:20 p.m.:
Air quality across Oregon deteriorating as smoke fills the skies
Smoke is flooding into Oregon from wildfires burning across the Pacific Northwest.
Air quality dropped to unhealthy levels across Central Oregon and has moved to “unhealthy for sensitive groups” in Detroit Lake.
The Willamette Valley is currently at “moderate” air quality, but that could drop quickly as smoke floods in from wildfires nearby and those growing extremely fast in Washington.
Read more: Air quality declines as winds bring smoke to Willamette Valley
Update at 5 p.m:
Lionshead Fire grows to 20,600 acres but smoke makes life difficult
The Lionshead Fire grew to 20,600 acres by Monday afternoon as winds began picking up, averaging 10 mph with gusts up to 20 mph, incident commander Bart Kicklighter told the Statesman Journal.
The problem is that smoke is so thick that it’s difficult for helicopters and aircraft to do much of anything, he said. The smoke is likely coming from a massive and fast-moving wildfire in Eastern Washington.
“Visibility is very poor,” Kicklighter said. “Most resources are backing off because they can’t see what’s going on. The fire is burning, but it hasn’t moved a ton today.”
Kicklighter said he anticipates the fire will spread west toward the Mount Jefferson Wilderness this evening. It currently is burning on the eastern flanks of Oregon’s second-tallest mountain.
“We’re hoping the fire just runs into glacier and rock and won’t have the opportunity to go much farther,” he said. “But there is timber to the north and south where it could skirt around, so we’re keeping a close eye on that.”
The entire Mount Jefferson Wilderness is closed to recreation currently. Forest Service officials said they felt as though they were able to evacuate out all hikers and backpackers that had been in the area.
(See update below for map showing full Mount Jefferson closure).
Update at 12:53:
New wildfire at Mount Hood Meadows closes Timberline Trail, Elk Meadow
A 2-acre wildfire has popped up at Mount Hood Meadows Ski Area, about a quarter mile east of the Shooting Star chair lift. There is an engine crew and hand crew already responding to the fire, supported by a helicopter dropping water, Forest officials said.
In response, forest officials have closed the Timberline Trail between Timberline Lodge and Cloud Cap. The Elk Meadow Trailhead and Sahalie Falls Trailhead have also been closed.
“Travelers in that area are asked to drive extra carefully and be aware of fire vehicles and the possibility of smoke,” officials said.
Update at 12:10:
Evacuation of Little North Santiam Canyon and Elkhorn due to Beachie Creek Fire
The Marion County Sheriff’s Office has issued a level 2 evacuation for the Elkhorn Community but is also asking residents to voluntarily leave the area.
Salmon Falls Park has also been closed.
Rick Schaefer, who owns a house in the area, said he was told to voluntarily evacuate the area. People from outside the area are not being allowed into the canyon.
“A level 2 status indicates there is significant danger in the area and residents should either voluntarily relocate to a shelter, other housing outside of the affected area, or if choosing to remain, to be ready to evacuate at a moment’s notice,” the Marion County Sheriff’s Office said.
Jim Quiring, who also lives in the area, said the area was smoky but not overwhelming.
“It’s smoky but you can still see the mountains, so overall not too bad,” he said. “We’re just all being prepared to leave at a moment’s notice right now.”
The areas impacted span North Fork Road from Gates Hill Road to the Willamette National Forest boundary including Elkhorn Drive, Elkhorn Ridge Road, Meyers Road, and North Fork Lane.
Lionshead Fire closes Mount Jefferson Wilderness, Olallie Lake, 50 miles of Pacific Crest Trail
The entire Mount Jefferson Wilderness and the Olallie Lake area to the north has been temporarily closed in anticipation of the Lionshead Fire burning swiftly across the region.
That includes a roughly 50-mile stretch of the Pacific Crest Trail.
“We are ramping up our closure to ensure folks stay clear of the area during the next 72-hours,” Willamette Forest Supervisor David Warnack said. “We plan to shrink the closure as appropriate once we see how the fire behaves.”
(Story continues below)
Beachie Creek Fire grows over 513 acres in Opal Creek Wilderness
The wildfire burning in a highly remote part of the Opal Creek Wilderness grew to 513 acres by Monday morning, spreading slowly in all directions, including in the Opal Creek Valley.
The fire has not yet crossed Opal Creek or Beachie Creek, the two streams that have held the blaze in place and prevented it from making a run toward the Ancient Forest Center at Jawbone Flats, “but it could easily happen with this wind event,” said fire information spokesman Jim Cahill.
“There will be the potential for the fire to spot a half mile,” he said. “It hasn’t happened yet, but it could with this event.”
To combat the blaze, planes may be dipping from Detroit Lake, temporarily closing part of the reservoir south of Piety Knob, Marion County Sheriff’s Office said, but it’s unclear when that might occur Monday.
Fire management personnel have prepared approximately 20 structures for protection at the Opal Creek Ancient Forest Center at Jawbone Flats. The entire staff evacuated the area over the weekend.
“Morning smoke and ash fall were a daily occurrence, and with the imminent east winds projected for this weekend, it was no longer a safe place to live,” officials at the Ancient Forest Center wrote on Facebook. “The fire has nearly reached Beachie Creek, one of our best natural barriers. The fate of our facility is out of our hands, and we can only hope for the best now.”
The fire, burning in a steep and inaccessible slope along Beachie Creek above Opal Creek, is not being attacked by firefighters on the ground directly due to the dangerous and challenging terrain.
“Firefighting efforts today will be a continuation of keeping the fire in its current location utilizing aviation firefighting resources with water delivery,” officials said in Sunday’s fire report. “Indirect fire line opportunities are also being identified. Forest roads will be improved for firefighter access and containment lines should the fire come out of its current location. This includes identifying hazardous trees for removal in anticipation of the upcoming wind event.”
The entire area surrounding the fire, including the Opal Creek area near Three Pools, across to the French Creek Ridge, Elk Lake and Tumble Lake north of Detroit, is all closed.
(Story continues below.)
White River Fire 17,507 acres, 55 percent contained
The White River Fire burning southeast of Mount Hood is 17,500 acres and 55 percent contained.
They are also preparing for high winds on Monday, although a lot of progress has been made.
“We had a very good day on the fire yesterday, continuing to mop up the western side and patrolling the east side to make sure things are tucked in … before this major wind event,” incident Commander Noel Livingston said. “We’re prepared for it and our lines are secure.”
This story will be updated throughout the day as conditions change.
Zach Urness has been an outdoors reporter, photographer and videographer in Oregon for 12 years. To support his work, subscribe to the Statesman Journal.
Urness is the author of “Best Hikes with Kids: Oregon” and “Hiking Southern Oregon.” He can be reached at [email protected] or (503) 399-6801. Find him on Twitter at @ZachsORoutdoors.