Wildfires bring ash, smoke to metro area
People in Eastern Washington County awoke Tuesday to ash on their cars, an orange sunrise, and news that the fires in the Columbia Gorge had grown significantly overnight and were advancing on the edges of the metro region.
Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury issued a declaration of emergency Tuesday morning in response to the rapidly spreading Eagle Creek fire in the Columbia River Gorge. The fire, which began near Cascade Locks on Saturday, Sept. 2, has spread west, causing evacuations of a number of rural communities.
The emergency declaration applies to unincorporated area of Multnomah County in the gorge from Gresham and Troutdale east. The declaration allows the county to seek resources from other jurisdictions, including the state, and to pursue emergency measures to help fight the fire.
The fire and ongoing heat wave have prompted schools in the region to change their schedules, although schools in the Beaverton-Tigard-Tualatin area opted to stay open.
Portland Public Schools cancelled all pre-K and kindergarten activities for Tuesday and release all other students two hours early on Tuesday.
Smoke in the air; weather change ahead
A change in the weather forecast late this week could bring welcome relief from the heat and the wildfire smoke that has hovered over the region for the past couple of days.
The National Weather Service says a heat advisory is still in effect through 10 p.m. Tuesday. But a low-pressure system pushing into the region could bring some rain, thunderstorms and cooler temperatures beginning Wednesday and lasting through Friday.
Until then, the Portland area will stay under a state air quality alert because of smoke from dozens of wildfires burning from Washington to Northern California. A shift in wind could bring more smoke into the Willamette Valley Tuesday, according to the Oregon Smoke Blog.
The Eagle Creek Fire started Saturday, Sept. 2, in the Columbia River Gorge, burning about 3,000 acres overnight and trapping more than 150 hikers (see story, 'Day Trip from Punchbowl becomes harrowing overnight adventureâ€š'). Hood River County search-and-rescue teams led the hikers to safety.
Residents in Cascade Locks and some places south of Interstate 84 in Hood River County face imminent evacuation orders as the fire grows. Some residents north of Interstate 84 were told during the weekend to prepare for evacuation.
Multnomah County and the American Red Cross opened a reception center for people in Bonneville, Dodson and Warrendale who have been forced from their homes by the Eagle Creek fire.
Also on Sunday, Gov. Kate Brown invoked the Emergency Conflagration Act in response to the Eagle Creek Fire. "Crews are deployed throughout Oregon fighting some of the most intense wildfires in the nation," Brown said Sunday. "The swift action of fire crews responding to the Eagle Creek Fire and heroic efforts of our Oregon National Guard saved lives, and I thank the crews still on the front lines who are working actively to contain the fire."
Water and travel
The Portland Water Bureau is working with federal and state agencies to determine the proximity of the Indian Creek Fire to the boundary of the Bull Run Watershed, the primary drinking water supply for the Portland-metro area.
The Portland Water Bureau provides water to thousands of customers in Washington County as a wholesale seller. Customers include the Tualatin Valley Water District, which provides water to customers in unincorporated Washington County and portions of Beaverton, Hillsboro and about one-third of Tigard. Other buyers include the city of Tualatin, Tualatin Valley and West Slope water districts, among others.
At this time, the fire is not near the drinking water reservoirs or water supply infrastructure, according to the Portland Water Bureau, adding that water from Bull Run continues to be safe to drink.
If the need arises, Portland could switch from Bull Run to the Columbia South Shore Well Field; the city's secondary water supply is ready for activation.
Meanwhile, the Eagle Creek Fire in Hood River County has forced Oregon's Department of Transportation to close Interstate 84 between Troutdale and Exit 62 near Hood River.
ODOT officials said the highway closure would require westbound traffic to leave the road at exit 62 in Hood River. Eastbound traffic must leave the highway at exit 35 at Ainsworth State Park and the Historic Columbia River Highway.
ODOT said it would reopen the highway "when ODOT, law enforcement, the US Forest Service and fire officials determine that the road is again safe."
The Hood River County Sheriff's Office said Monday afternoon that both directions of the highway would close because I-84 was in the evacuation zone. The area around Cascade Locks has been under a Level Two evacuation order, which means residents should be ready to leave on short notice.
The Oregon Department of Transportation also has canceled the Columbia Gorge Express bus service for Friday through Sunday, Sept. 8 to 10, because of the ongoing threat from the Eagle Creek Fire.
The bus is in its second season of operations between the Gateway Transit Center, Rooster Rock State Park and Multnomah Falls and has proven a popular alternative to parking at the crowded Gorge attractions.
The service is scheduled to operate on the last two weekends of this month, Sept. 15 to 17 and Sept. 22 to 24. Service updates can be found at ColumbiaGorgeExpress.com and on the CGE Facebook page.
Local firefighters deployed
As the Eagle Creek Fire in the Columbia River Gorge continued to burn this morning, fire crews from Forest Grove and Cornelius geared up to spend Labor Day working in neighborhoods threatened by the 3,200-acre blaze.
Forest Grove Fire Marshal Dave Nemeyer said heavy brush rigs from Forest Grove Fire & Rescue and the Cornelius Fire Department headed to the Cascade Locks area on Monday, along with three firefighters from each agency. They were tasked with structure protection as the fire raced toward homes and businesses in the Warrendale and Dodson communities.
Tony Carter of FGF&R returned from the Chetco Bar Fire Saturday afternoon, where he and others prepared structures on the outskirts of Brookings from Aug. 21 to Sept. 2 as part of Washington County Task Force No. 15.
"We arrived in Brookings an hour and a half before the (Aug. 21) total solar eclipse and didn't get to see any of it due to the smoke," he said.
Once in place at each station, firefighters focused on preserving buildings and residential homes, much like crews dispatched Monday to the Columbia Gorge.
"We triaged the houses that were easily defendable," said Carter, FGF&R B Shift captain. "Some just need to be written off, but with others, you can trim trees, cut down bushes and take care of anything that might burn hot within a 10- to 15-foot radius."
Carter and 11 other firefighters from Washington County — including Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue — prepped between 100 and 150 homes in the Brookings area alone.
"We had 13 in our group initially, but we had to send two home when a brush rig broke down," Carter said. They worked to preserve structures threatened by the Nena Springs Fire in Warm Springs for two days before traveling to Sisters to do similar work on the Milli Fire for one day. The rest of that task force's work was concentrated in Brookings, where the Chetco Bar Fire has burned more than 140,000 acres.
Firefighters with the Oregon Department of Forestry, Multnomah County, Wasco County, Hood River County, Washington's Skamania County had been dispatched to fight the fire before Washington County firefighters arrived on the scene. So far, they have focused on protecting structures rather than fire suppression.
Reporters Jim Redden, Nancy Townsley, Kevin Harden and Dana Haynes contributed to this story.