SALEM, Ore. (AP) — Oregon firefighters will face challenges this week as continued heat combines with windy and unstable conditions, possible thunderstorms and unwanted east winds, fire meteorologists said.
Forecasters said the concern isn’t on the same level as the 2020 Labor Day fires east wind event, but there is concern about active wildfires near Oakridge, Grants Pass and Joseph spreading as well as new blazes starting and growing quickly.
Oregon utilities told the Statesman Journal they’re watching conditions closely and may consider shutting down power lines to limit wildfire danger. Falling power active lines in the high winds were at least partly to blame for the Labor Day wildfires.
Eric Wise, fire meteorologist for the Northwest Coordination Center, described his level of concern as “about a 6 or 7,” on a scale of 1 to 10.
August has generally been the state's busiest month for wildfires, but in September — when hot and dry east winds are involved — Oregon has experienced the largest wildfire spreads in state history.
“This is a concerning forecast for western Oregon, but we’re also not expecting anything like the winds we saw back in 2020,” Wise said about this week.
Wednesday and then Friday into early Saturday are the most concerning days, officials said.
Heat Tuesday and Wednesday combined with an unstable atmosphere could create dry thunderstorms, with lightning strikes that could ignite fires.
Friday and into Saturday is when the east winds are forecast. Unlike the moisture-laden winds from the Pacific, east winds have a tendency to dry out over the Cascade Range and sweep down into western Oregon.
Weather models are projecting sustained winds speeds around 20 mph (32 kph) with gusts up to 40 mph (64 kph) in the Columbia River Gorge.
That’s decent news for the largest active fire in southwest Oregon — the Cedar Creek Fire — which is southeast of Eugene and about 12 miles (19 kilometers) from Oakridge. The fire, next to Waldo Lake, has burned about 28 square miles (72 square kilometers) and growth appears likely.
Other wildfires likely to be impacted include the Rum Creek Fire in southwest Oregon above the Rogue River, and the Double Creek, Sturgill and Nebo fires in the Wallowa Mountains of northeast Oregon.
Pacific Power spokesman Drew Hanson said if the forecasted conditions develop, the utility is prepared to turn off power to reduce wildfire risks. Hanson said the goal is to notify potentially affected customers 48 hours in advance.
Portland General Electric spokeswoman Andrea Platt said it was too early to say whether a public safety power shutoff may be called.
Cooler temperatures and possibly even rain are expected next week.