Wind, fire leave Newberg area battered but not broken
High winds, catastrophic wildfires, threatened families, displaced livestock, businesses interrupted, emotions ragged — the last 10 days in the Newberg area has been anything but normal, but in the age of COVID-19 what does that even mean anymore?
The week started off with high winds on Labor Day, causing widespread power outages in much of Newberg as trees fell across power lines and caused transformers to explode. The northern part of the town was dark for more than six hours as crews from PGE scrambled to replace transformers and to repair power lines to homes.
Then the fires, which had taken flame at points east the week before, began breaking out near Newberg and other towns in the Willamette Valley.
The Bald Peak/Chehalem Mountain fire took flame on the evening of Sept. 8 and was exacerbated initially by high winds and extremely dry conditions. Yamhill County officials declared a state of emergency around 2:30 a.m. on Sept. 9, requiring many areas to evacuate immediately.
"We had to do additional evacuations in the middle of the night," Cassandra Ulven, Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue public affairs chief, said. "The wind picked up and the fire became more aggressive. It started crowning in some trees and they had to expand the evacuation. Safe estimates for number of people evacuated would be over 150."
The fire is in the mop-up stage according to officials at TVF&R, the lead agency fighting the blaze.
The six-alarm fire on the line between Yamhill and Washington counties was initially estimated at 2,000 acres but later was downgraded to about 875 acres. Regardless, hundreds of firefighters from the area, many transported up the mountain via TriMet buses, fought the fire around the clock for more than two days before containing it.
Property owners along a large swath of the ridge that divides the two counties were ordered to evacuate on Sept. 9 and 10, many fleeing to Beaverton's Mountainside High School or to the safety of friends and family member's homes outside the fire zone.
The evacuations prompted three Newberg-area churches — Northwest Christian, Northside Community and Red Hills — to provide food and a place to bunk for the night until things returned to normal and the evacuation orders were rescinded. People started making their way back to their homes on Friday, although some residences remained behind the fire line into the weekend.
The triumvirate of churches began serving as evacuation shelters for area residents on Sept. 8. Northwest Christian executive pastor Forrest Reinhardt said the church housed five families overnight after opening at 7:30 p.m.
On the morning of Sept. 9, a half-dozen individuals could be seen taking refuge in Northside's multipurpose room, with others sequestered in quiet rooms getting some sleep.
Other area residents have dropped off vehicles they moved from their homes for safekeeping.
"As long as there's a need, we'll definitely (stay open)," Reinhardt said.
Donations of food and drink have been delivered sporadically throughout the day, Tammy Foster of Northside's support services department said.
Ulven said firefighters saved many homes.
"We haven't had any homes burn as a result of the fire, but there have been three barns that have burned," she added.
No injuries were reported during the duration of the battle. One firefighter experienced a medical issue, Ulven said, but recovered quickly.
Air tankers from the Oregon Department of Forestry aided in the effort to quell the Bald Peak/Chehalem Mountain fire on Sept. 9 by dumping water gathered from Hagg Lake in Washington County. The air crews continued the effort for hours until nightfall while ground crews continued to battle the blaze through the night to maintain containment lines, TVF&R officials said. In many cases, fire lines were established between the fire and the homes in an attempt to safeguard residences from destruction.
The TVF&R reported Friday afternoon that the fire was 70% contained and that investigators had begun interviewing witnesses and examining material evidence in order to determine the cause of the blaze.
The potential for the fire to spread further into Washington County prompted the Cooper Mountain Nature Park, located several miles north, to close on Sept. 9 as a precautionary measure.
"We will reopen the park as soon as conditions improve," said Tualatin Hills Park & Recreation District officials, noting at the time that a red flag warning remained in place for the region due to winds, dry air and 90-degree heat.
In addition to fighting the fire, agencies also faced an anxious public looking for information. Still, fire officials said, the public should only call 911 in case of emergency.
"Our 911 centers in both Washington and Yamhill (counties were) bombarded with people calling about a red glow or smoke," Ulven said. "That is not helpful because the 911 centers are overwhelmed already."
The cause of the fire remains under investigation, but that took a back seat while efforts were underway to contain the blaze and prevent its spread.
"Unfortunately, we cannot predict everything because fire behavior can change so quickly," Ulven said last week. "We have a lot of wind and dry conditions along with high temperatures, but we remain fairly confident that we will not have to do any additional evacuations if we can continue to hold the line that we have now. It's still important for people who live nearby to be prepared in case conditions change suddenly."
Some area residents with livestock endangered by the fires have moved them to paddocks at the St. Paul Rodeo grounds, including more than two dozen cattle and about a half-dozen horses. The DevonWood Equestrian Centre east of Newberg was full up on Friday with horses, llamas and other farm animals evacuated from the Bald Peak and other area fires. Some animals also were harbored at the Westside Commons in Hillsboro, formerly known as the Washington County Fair Complex.
Yamhill County Health and Human Services officials told an online forum of county commissioners Friday that the department set up a commissary at the Yamhill County fairgrounds in McMinnville, providing food and clothing to residents from Yamhill, Washington, Clackamas and Marion counties since Sept. 8.
"We still have residents with animals arriving all hours of the day and night," Lindsay Manfrin, HHS director, said.
Also on Friday, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) authorized the use of federal funds to help in the firefighting costs for the Bald Peak/Chehalem Mountain fire.
A FEMA administrator determined that the fire threatened to cause such destruction as to constitute a major disaster and approved the state's request for a fire management grant.
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.