UPDATE: Powerline Fire battle gets air support
In a 3 p.m. update Wednesday, Sept. 9, the Gaston Rural Fire District said the Powerline Fire near Henry Hagg Lake was about 50% contained, but existing evacuation orders remain in place as firefighters continue to battle the fire.
Firefighters at the scene got assistance late Wednesday afternoon from air tankers — seaplane-type aircraft that can fill up on water by skimming the surface of nearby Hagg Lake. Those tankers made multiple drops on the Powerline Fire before flying east to assist with the Chehalem Mountain Fire north of Newberg.
Notably, the fire district said at this point, no residential buildings have been lost to the wildfire that started early Tuesday, Sept. 8.
"Crews have worked all night to protect structures near the fire," the fire district stated. "Most of the homes that are immediately threatened are on Dundee Road. We have not lost any homes, barns, or outbuildings to this fire."
The fire remains active, and evacuation orders given Tuesday are still in place.
Residents of Dundee Road were told to evacuate Tuesday morning. That evacuation order expanded by midday to encompass the Cherry Grove area, an unincorporated community to the west of Gaston.
About 600 residences had been evacuated in total, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Seven people within the evacuation area were contacted by the Sheriff's Office Tuesday but refused to leave their properties, said Sgt. Danny DiPietro, spokesman for the Sheriff's Office.
"That is a choice of their own," DiPietro said. "We are not forcing them to leave but we are telling them, look, it's Level 3, this is what the fire personnel are suggesting. We strongly are encouraging people to leave but we're not going to use force."
The southwestern edge of the fire has challenged firefighters the most, the fire district said.
"There have been spot fires that jumped the lines today and grew quickly," the fire district said. "There are no structures lost at this time, and even though winds have died down from yesterday, we still have significant wind on ridge tops that is blowing embers and creating spot fires."
A helicopter dropping water on the fire arrived shortly before the update was posted and fire officials requested additional air support, the fire district said.
In a separate post shortly after, the fire district said an unspecified mechanical incident with the helicopter forced it to land at the lake. The pilot landed safely and was uninjured, the fire district said.
About 4:30 p.m., fire officials said two single-engine seaplane type water aircraft were en route to the fire. The fire district said the planes would be a big help as they can drop 600 gallons of water per trip and refill directly from Hagg Lake.
"Please be patient, we are working as hard as we can to get people back to their homes," the fire district said. "This is still a dangerous incident, however."
The Federal Emergency Management Agency authorized Tuesday the use of federal funds to help firefighting costs related to the Powerline Fire. The Holiday Farm Fire and the Echo Mountain Complex Fire in Lane and Lincoln counties, respectively, were also included in the authorization.
The fire also threatened a slow water sand filter plant that provides water resources to the Hillsboro area, the Stimpson Lumber Company mill and Hagg Lake, FEMA said.
Evacuees, many towing livestock in trailers, coordinated with friends and neighbors about where to take animals overnight.
Community members established a Facebook page dedicated to communicating about donations and offering help.
People used the parking lot of Neil Armstrong Middle School in Forest Grove as an evacuation shelter, as school officials offered the gym and bathroom facilities to displaced people. County officials initially told evacuees to head to Gilley Elementary School but power loss at the school prompted the move to Neil Armstrong.
Osvaldo Garcia-Contreras, principal of Neil Armstrong, said only one family stayed overnight in the parking lot while others found hotels, motels, friends and family members who were willing to take them in.
By noon Wednesday, five trailers with evacuees were parked at the middle school as other evacuees in cars came and went from the parking lot.
Keith Mills, a volunteer with the American Red Cross, said he would be stationed at Neil Armstrong all day registering people who may need financial assistance or other aid as a result of the Powerline Fire.
"We offer them funds to carry them through three or four days in a motel and enough for some food or replacement clothing if that's necessary," Mills said. "If they need mental health or more complex services, the Red Cross has people to handle some of those issues as well."
Mills hoped people's homes would be safe, he said. He has worked house fires in the past. "It's a very sad thing," Mills said.
About 50 firefighters were still on scene by the time of the 5 a.m. update, according to the fire district.
"This is still a very difficult incident however, and resources statewide are stretched extremely thin," the district stated, adding that "all of this will challenge us as we move into daytime operations on Wednesday."
The fire started in a rugged area northwest of Gaston. As with many other wildfires in the state, including an active fire several miles to the east in the Bald Peak area, topography and limited road access have challenged firefighters working to contain it — as have dry, warm, windy conditions.
The fire district said it anticipates less wind Wednesday, but conditions remain warm and dry, with highs in the 90s in the forecast for Thursday, Sept. 10.
"We remain under a red flag fire weather warning, and the fire danger is still at the extreme level," the district noted.
The National Weather Service said Wednesday morning that while "the worst of the winds are behind us," it will remain blustery in places Wednesday and the region will continue to be under a red flag warning.
ICYMI— NWS Portland (@NWSPortland) September 9, 2020
Red Flag Warnings remain in effect through Wednesday evening. The worst of the winds are behind us, however, there is still plenty of wind to come. Humidity remains low and this combination will challenge firefighting efforts through at least Wed. evening. #orwx #wawx (1/2) pic.twitter.com/P0xDUmQv35
Community members have pitched in to assist people displaced by wildfires and offer support for first responders in Washington County this week, both the Powerline Fire and the Chehalem Mountain-Bald Peak Fire.
"At this time we have no special needs from the community," the Gaston Rural Fire District said. "We thank all of you who have brought treats, water and more, or who have went above and beyond in supporting your neighbors who are evacuated from this fire. We are proud to serve alongside you during this unprecedented weather event."
Editor's note: This story has been updated as of 8 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 9, with additional information about evacuations and an update on fire conditions.
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