High Winds To Pose Severe Wildfire Risk In Pacific Northwest

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Forecasters warned Thursday that strong, gusting winds and low humidity will cause extreme fire danger across western Oregon and Washington this weekend as authorities encouraged residents to charge cellphones and have an evacuation plan ready.

Starting Friday, a dry east wind with gusts of up to 50 mph (80 kph) will be accompanied by low humidity, setting up a situation ripe for fire danger, the National Weather Service said.

Gov. Kate Brown in a media briefing Thursday encouraged Oregonians to continue to be prepared, have a plan in place and to do anything they can to prevent human-caused fires.

“Each one of us can make a difference over the next 48 to 72 hours,” she said. “Our goal here of course is to make sure that we save lives and protect property.”

Travis Medema, chief deputy state fire marshal, said the predicted combination of dry winds, low relative humidity and an unstable atmosphere could lead to explosive fire growth.

“We are at a critical point in the 2022 fire season in terms of fuels and weather,” he said. “Any new starts that occur could be very problematic.”

Areas from the Columbia River Gorge south to Douglas County in western Oregon are most at risk from the forecasted east winds, he said. Fire crews, including several from Washington state, have been sent to those areas in an effort to quickly respond to fires that spark.

Meanwhile, Pacific Power notified about 12,000 customers in Linn, Douglas, Lincoln, Tillamook, Marion and Polk counties that their power would be shut off early Friday to prevent fire starts from snagging or broken power lines.

The utility said Thursday evening that wind prone, rural areas deeper in the mountains would experience shutoffs first and that others would happen as the windstorm progresses Friday.

Portland General Electric officials will also likely shut off power in 10 areas because of the risk of fire, impacting about 30,000 customers, officials said. The utility will closely monitor conditions and will give several hours of notice before turning off power, it said.

Because of the planned power outages, several Oregon schools will be closed Friday, Oregon Public Broadcasting reported.

The Santiam Canyon and Sweet Home school districts are in Linn County where Pacific Power has said power would be cut. Both districts canceled school in response.

Cities and towns across the region, including the oceanfront city of Seaside, also instituted burn bans in anticipation of the fire danger that included beach bonfires and camping fires.

The impending weather was reminiscent of severe winds that hit over Labor Day weekend in 2020, fueling Oregon wildfires that burned more than 1 million acres (405,000 hectares), destroyed 4,000 homes and killed at least 11 people across the western part of the state.

This weekend's winds were not expected to approach the speed and intensity of those in 2020, but forecasters said there was still a chance of “rapid fire spread” on both new fire starts and on fires already burning in Oregon and in Washington state.

Fire weather watches and red flag warnings have been forecast for much of western Oregon and Washington starting Friday with high temperatures around 90 degrees Fahrenheit (30 degrees Celsius).

Officials with the Department of Natural Resources in Washington state also said the expected east wind event, paired with already-critical fire weather conditions, could result in severe wildfire activity.

“West of the Cascades, this will likely be the highest fire danger of the season as hot, dry winds leave normally damp fuels such as grass & moss ready to burn and primed for rapid spread,” DNR officials said on Twitter.

“It’s important to remember that we’re all in this together,” Washington Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz said. “Practicing good prevention habits keeps our skies clear and our firefighters safe.”

A number of blazes are burning in Oregon. The largest is the Double Creek Fire burning in northeastern Oregon near the Idaho border. The fire grew by nearly 47 square miles (122 square kilometers) Wednesday because of wind gusts up to 50 mph (80 kph) and as of Thursday had burned a total of nearly 158 square miles (409 square kilometers). It's threatening about 100 homes near the community of Imnaha.

In Central Oregon, the Cedar Creek Fire east of Oakridge has burned nearly 47 square miles (122 square kilometers). That fire prompted new mandatory evacuations Thursday for several recreational areas and campgrounds in Linn, Deschutes and Klamath counties and for residents in greater Oakridge and Westfir areas to be ready to evacuate.

The Van Meter Fire, which started Wednesday, is burning on Stukel Mountain about 13 miles (21 kilometers) southeast of Klamath Falls. One home and four structures have been destroyed and about 260 structures are threatened by that blaze, Medema said on Thursday.