The Northwest Interagency Coordination Center said Wednesday, Sept. 9, that fires in Oregon and Washington had burned 515,135 acres in about 24 hours, and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management said 27 large fires were burning more than 900,000 acres in the Northwest.
Gov. Kate Brown pointed out Thursday afternoon that — during past decade, by contrast — about 500,000 acres burned annually. "We have seen that nearly double in the past three days," she said.
"We have never seen this amount of uncontained fire across our state," Brown said. "We know there are fire-related fatalities, and as soon as we are able to provide confirmed information, we will do so."
The Oregon Department of Forestry estimates about 3,000 firefighters are working 10 big blazes across the state, as of Thursday.
Three deaths have been reported due to the state's wildfires: two in Marion County and one in Jackson County.
Oregon's Department of Environmental Quality and a handful of regional air quality agencies issued the Sept. 10 advisory for most of the Willamette Valley and Southern Oregon. DEQ officials expect the advisory to stay in effect until at least Monday afternoon.
The alert means people who have medical conditions affected by bad air quality should remain indoors and avoid strenuous activity. Air quality issues caused several regional schools and organizations to cancel activities Thursday and Friday.
The pollution in Portland, as of Thursday, is ranked No. 1 in the world, beating out such places as Jakarta, Indonesia, Delhi, India, and Lahore, Pakistan.
On Thursday, Clackamas County Incident Commander Nancy Bush said some of the local fires likely will come together and create a "complex fire," which opens up new resources for firefighters. She said that, over the next 24 to 48 hours, the county could see federal and state assets coming in to give assistance to local firefighters.
The state fire marshal arrived this morning, Bush said, and is assisting the county.
The county also is expected to receive some help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, in the form a team of firefighters being flown in from Texas, Bush said. That help also could include air support, which could arrive in the next 24 to 48 hours.
And five fire engines are in route to Clackamas County from Utah.
Officials said they're looking forward to a change in weather, expected Thursday, as an opportunity to make headway on the fire, even as they're bracing to find more carnage as the wildfires continue to burn thousands of acres in the state.
Locally, much of Clackamas County was under evacuation orders as four fires grew and threatened to merge.
There are three evacuation levels:
• Level 1: Be ready for potential evacuation
• Level 2: Be set to evacuate
• Level 3: Go! Evacuate now.
By 3 p.m. Thursday, residents of Sandy were being encouraged to evacuate if they could, even though a mandatory evacuation order had not been given.
"…officials encourage those that are ready to consider voluntary evacuations to go and stay with friends or family out of the area. This will ease congestion in the event we are moved to Level Three: 'Go Now,'" according to a press release from the Sandy Police Department.
Also around 3 p.m., the city of Estacada warned any residents who haven't fled yet to get out because of increased danger.
"City officials were just advised by the County Emergency Operations Center that the fire has become too difficult to control and therefore too dangerous to fight right now," according to a release on the city's Facebook page. "They have pulled all firefighters off the fire-lines and out of Estacada. If you have not evacuated, you must do so now. At this point there will be no firefighters protecting the City.
Please evacuate and stay tuned for alerts that may be sent out, but DO NOT WAIT for a call or knock at the door. Go now."
An evacuation center established at Clackamas Community College in Oregon was itself evacuated on Thursday, late afternoon. Officials announced that Clackamas Town Center would be the new evacuation site for recreational vehicles, and the Oregon Convention Center for congregate sheltering.
Oregon City was added to the Level 2 zone early on Thursday afternoon.
By midafternoon Wednesday, Estacada and the areas of Springwater and George were at Level 3 evacuation. The entire city of Estacada was ordered to evacuate around 1:30 p.m. as first responders struggled to control several wildfires in the area, including the large Riverside Fire.
Every home in Clackamas County south of Highway 211 between Estacada and Woodburn was at Level 3 evacuation by midday Wednesday.
Authorities expanded the Level 3 evacuation area at about 9:30 p.m. to include all of Eaden Road and west to S Harding Road, as well as a small area west of Beavercreek Road which includes all of S Gard Road and Unger Road to the first part of Windy City.
Firefighters continued to work on the scene of an active wildfire south of Henry Hagg Lake in Washington County as of Thursday morning, Sept. 10.
Crews from the Gaston Rural Fire District and other agencies have been battling the Powerline Fire since Tuesday morning, Sept. 8. The fire, along with many others throughout Oregon, popped up following a Labor Day windstorm that brought strong, dry easterly winds to the region for more than 48 hours.
As of Wednesday night, the Powerline Fire was estimated at about 50 acres, with approximately 50% containment — a positive sign as agencies across the state battle to bring aggressive wildfires to heel, straining firefighting resources like multi-agency "strike teams" and air tanker support.
Crews from the Clackamas Fire Department responded to a fire in the trees on Elk Rock Island Wednesday night.
The fire on the island — which is located on the Willamette River between Milwaukie and Lake Oswego — was about 1/2 acre and quickly contained after firefighters arrived around 8:30 p.m., CFD said on Twitter. By 9:10 p.m., crews were starting the "long process of mopping up hotspots."
Surrounding neighborhoods were not evacuated.
As of last night the cause of the fire had yet to be announced.
"Substantially destroyed" is how Gov. Kate Brown described the fallout from the wildfires, saying communities that had been devastated include Phoenix and Talent in southern Oregon, Blue River and Vida in Lane County and Detroit near Mount Jefferson.
County officials confirmed at least three deaths discovered among the burned remains in the fires' wake: an individual in Jackson County was discovered where the Almeda Drive Fire burned, and two were found in Marion County, where a complex of fires has burned whole canyons east of the Willamette River.
Marion County Sheriff's office confirmed two deaths linked to wildfires that are ravaging Oregon this week.
Sheriff Joe Kast said Wednesday afternoon that search and rescue teams found the people dead in a car. They were fleeing from the Santiam Fire.
The Salem Statesman Journal reports the two deceased victims are a 13-year-old Wyatt Tofte and his grandmother, 71-year-old Peggy Mosso. The newspaper also reports the boy's mother survived the fire but is in critical condition.
Overnight, the Marion County Sheriff's Office continued to have deputies patrolling the fire affected areas. They also were there to be available for evacuation assistance, as needed. "We continue to have concerns for the safety of people in the evacuation area due to the extreme conditions," according to a Sheriff's Office spokesman. "There were no changes to existing evacuation levels overnight."
Brown has asked the federal government for assistance. All seven members of Oregon's Congressional Delegation supported Brown's request for a state Emergency Declaration in a letter sent Wednesday to President Donald Trump.
"The number and scale of fires burning on Oregon's landscape at the moment are unprecedented, and urgent action is necessary," the letter said.
Brown has invoked a law that, for the first time, enables the state fire marshal to mobilize firefighting efforts statewide, given widespread fires throughout Oregon.
The 1941 law, known as the Conflagration Act, generally has been invoked for specific areas.
On Thursday, social media began lighting up with the latest hoax: That left-wing groups sometimes called "antifa" were setting the blaze, or that right-wing groups like the Proud Boys were behind the fires. The Portland Tribune started receiving comments and letters pushing that hoax. The New York Times reported Thursday that, in Medford, the police department began hearing that rumor Wednesday.
Medford police turned to Facebook to say that neither story is true.
Officials haven't even seen any evidence of such a campaign at the state or local level, according to Joy Krawczyk, a spokeswoman with the Oregon Department of Forestry, speaking to the Times. She said many fires remain under investigation.
Clackamas County Commissioner Sonya Fischer on Thursday also dispelled rumors that antifa and Black Lives Matter are coordinating arson strikes to start wildfires. She said law enforcement agencies have no evidence that either group has engaged in looting of areas affected by the fires and evacuations.
"The sheriff's office has not reported any looting," a county administrator told the commissioners. "They are putting more staff out to patrol those areas that have been evacuated."
In Sandy, the Police Department is warning people not to be fooled by false information or people coming to their door posing as police or fire personnel and telling them to evacuate.
People have reportedly been calling CCOM, the dispatch service for Clackamas County, saying police and fire are going door-to-door to evacuate the citizens of Sandy. Sandy Police say this is untrue.
Earlier on Thursday, the Washington County Sheriff's Office tweeted that the Chehalem Mountain-Bald Peak Fire had grown to 3,000 acres. But Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue confirmed that number to be false: the fire remains at approximately 2,000 acres.
Clackamas Community College in Oregon City is one of the state's designated evacuee centers. On Wednesday, people chased out of their homes by wildfires began congregating there.
In Washington County, people gathered at Beaverton's Mountainside High School. The school was built to serve as an evacuation center if needed, in the event of an earthquake or other disaster.
Shellie Bailey-Shah, public information officer for the Beaverton School District, said the school's parking lot is being utilized by families with motor homes and campers, while the cafeteria is set up with donated food and water, as well as a place to charge phones and electronics. "We're an evacuation center, not a shelter, but we've had community partners like Holy Trinity Church reach out," Bailey-Shah said.
She said the American Red Cross has not been able to assist with coordinated efforts.
Animals haven't been forgotten in all this: Ryan Scholz, acting state veterinarian with the Oregon Department of Agriculture, took a census of all the area's fairgrounds to see what they might need and if they had any available room. Clackamas County's fairgrounds were taking in animals; Polk County was full; and fairgrounds in Yamhill and Benton counties still had room. The Oregon State Fairgrounds in Salem had room, but with all of its staff furloughed to the economic downturn, there is no one available to take calls.
Midday Wednesday, word came that YMCA Camp Collins on the Sandy River began hosting refuge horses at its stables.
Lake Oswego Hunt also took in 40 horses from around the state.
Clackamas County hardest hit
Hundreds of evacuees from communities affected by the several wildfires burning throughout Clackamas County trickled in and out of Clackamas Community College on Wednesday, Sept. 9, as evacuation orders remain in effect and firefighters continue to try and bring the blazes to heel.
Recreational vehicles, travel trailers, fifth wheels and even large animal trailers lined the parking lots of both the college and Oregon City High School as those uprooted from their homes took shelter from the smoke that is choking out their towns.
By noon on Wednesday, many of the cars and motorhomes that filled the CCC parking lot beginning Tuesday night had left, either temporarily or permanently to seek other accommodations. With the help of the American Red Cross, many evacuees sought hotel rooms in Oregon City and other nearby communities of Gladstone and Clackamas.
As of Wednesday, five major fires were being watched:
• Riverside Fire, burning southeast of Estacada, had jumped to 112,000 acres by Wednesday evening, according to Mount Hood National Forest officials. An estimated seven structures, including five homes, had burned, and an estimated 30 more were threatened.
On Thursday morning, the U.S. Forest Service said the Riverside fire was 0% contained and human caused, but did not specify further details on the latter. Crews worked overnight to protect homes along Highway 211.
• The Unger Road Fire burned 200 structures, including five houses southeast of Highway 211. Four structures, including one house, had burned west of Highway 211.
• In Molalla, the Willhoit Fire has destroyed two structures, one of which was a house. Officials estimated it was between 10% and 15% contained as of 8 p.m. Wednesday.
• Twelve structures had been lost, including six homes, to the Dowty Road Fire. It's also estimated at 10% to 15% containment.
• The Spangler Road Fire, which started within the last 24 hours at Highway 213, had burned 10 acres and two structures — including one house — and was under control by 8 p.m.
Reporters Brittany Allen, Dana Haynes, Emily Lindstrand, Patrick Malee, Mark Miller, Sam Stites, Courtney Vaughn and Peter Wong have contributed to this story. Oregon Public Broadcasting and KOIN 6 news contributed to this article. Both are news partners of Pamplin Media Group.
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.