Seven major wildfires continue burning, but rain expected to help
Seven major wildfires continue to burn across Oregon, including two that have consumed more than 300,000 acres in Clackamas and Marion counties.
But the fire protection chief for the Oregon Department of Forestry said Wednesday, Sept. 23, that this week's rain should help firefighters expand their containment of most of them west of the Cascades.
"It's only going to be helpful for us to hold these lines and continue to expand them," Doug Grafe said during a briefing arranged by Gov. Kate Brown.
Among them are the Riverside fire, which has consumed 138,027 acres in southern Clackamas County and was 31% contained, and the Beachie Creek fire, which has consumed 192,805 acres in Marion County east of Salem and was 46% contained. Containment is defined as firefighters arranging for control lines; it does not mean control in itself.
Four other wildfires, each 100,000 acres or greater, are between 15% and 52% contained. The other fire is on the Oregon-California border, and Grafe said there won't be enough rain to affect that fire, which was 24% contained.
Grafe said all the fires will be fully put out only when seasonal rains arrive, likely in mid-October.
He did say three other fires, all in Southern Oregon, have been contained to the point where local firefighting crews can assume responsibility for them. Containment of those fires ranged from 80% to 95%.
"We are entering a new phase of this fight," Brown said. "It has given us confidence … that we have turned the corner."
The fires have consumed about 1 million acres, destroyed thousands of homes — many of them in the Southern Oregon communities of Phoenix and Talent — and claimed at least nine lives. But the mobile morgue of the Oregon State Police and search teams from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) have been demobilized.
Maj. Gen. Mike Stencel said the Oregon National Guard has scaled back its mobilization from a peak of 1,300 — including two 125-member teams that completed fire training, but were not deployed alongside the three other teams that were — down to 546.
"We expected increased losses, and we had them," Brown said. "But fortunately, the loss of life has been much less than we expected. The fact that more people did not lose their lives during this incredible fire event is a testament to the heroic efforts of several state and local first responders" and neighbors who looked out for each other.
Brown on Monday visited the site of the Almeda fire, which swept through Talent, Phoenix and part of Medford. "It looked like a bomb went off there," she said.
More than 4,250 people have applied for disaster aid from FEMA. Andrew Phelps, director of the Oregon Office of Emergency Management, said $7 million has been paid out so far. Private insurance takes priority, but people in eight specified counties — including Clackamas and Marion — can qualify for individual assistance for home replacement or repairs and for other expenses. The caps are $35,500 in each category.
The Oregon Department of Consumer and Business Services also has a web page for assistance to homeowners and others affected by the fires.
Grafe said preliminary estimates put the cost of fire suppression at $78 million on the 16 million acres that the Oregon Department of Forestry is responsible for — the acreage also covers western Oregon forest lands under the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, but not the Forest Service — and the total is likely to reach about $100 million by mid-October. He said FEMA will cover half, but the state will have to cover the other half. The state could file a claim against its fire insurance with Lloyd's — after a deductible is satisfied — but Grafe said no action has been decided yet.
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