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Oregon governor: State could see largest losses ever from current fires

by Kale Williams and Noelle Crombie, The Oregonian (Portland, Ore.) |

High temperatures and strong winds Wednesday continued to create disastrous fire conditions across Oregon, as hundreds of thousands of acres were scorched and thousands fled their homes.

New fires broke out across the state Tuesday, and existing fires were whipped into conflagrations by powerful winds out of the northeast, which pulled warm air from the state’s interior.

Half of Clackamas County was under a must-evacuate order early afternoon Wednesday. At least two people were killed by a separate fire southeast of Salem, family members said.

Gov. Kate Brown said the wildfires could lead to the greatest loss of property and human lives in state history. Firefighters are actively battling 35 fires, she said, and winds continue to feed them. She declared a statewide emergency Tuesday as blazes grew in Marion, Lane, Jackson, Coos, Lincoln, Washington and Clackamas counties.

“This is proving to be an unprecedented and significant fire event for our state,” Brown said.

Mariana Ruiz-Temple, chief deputy state fire marshal, said firefighters are still actively fighting the worst fires and “have not been able to get into some of these areas” to see what or who may have been harmed.

The state’s top priority is not fighting fires but getting to people who need assistance evacuating, Ruiz-Temple said.

More than 500 square miles of Oregon are on fire, Brown said.

Nearly all of the state’s half dozen or so biggest fires have no containment, due primarily to hot, heavy winds, said Doug Grafe, chief of fire protection at the Oregon Department of Forestry.

“Everyone must be on high alert,” given the hot, dry, windy conditions, the governor said. “The next several days are going to be extremely difficult. “Firefighting crews are stretched to their limits, state officials said. Oregon has limited resources to tap in the all-out battle to contain wildfires throughout the state, because national and regional teams are all tied up on various fires at this point, forestry officials told a state board Wednesday morning.

Travis Medema, regional forestry manager for eastern Oregon, told the Board of Forestry during a virtual meeting that the Pacific Northwest and the entire nation are both at preparedness level five, “which means there are literally no resources available” that can be deployed to new or growing fires.

“It has been … absolutely unprecedented in my career and I think all of our careers,” Medema said of the fast-growing wildfires stoked in the last 48 hours by strong east winds and extremely dry weather. Medema said thousands of homes have been destroyed in the fires.

He indicated that at least some Oregonians have died but he did not say how many or offer any details about the deaths. At least two deaths, of a boy and his grandmother, have been reported from the Santiam Canyon Fire east of Salem.

State Forester Peter Daugherty acknowledged “a heart-breaking number of homes and businesses” have been lost in fires around the state in the last 48 hours, including in some cases the homes of agency staff. The Forestry Department’s Lyons office was “destroyed last evening,” Daugherty told board members.

Medema said the “catastrophic growth” of the fires is making it difficult to keep accurate tallies of the acres burned. He predicted it “will take days to get accurate information, months to contain fires” and decades for Oregon communities to recover.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency on Wednesday said it had authorized federal funds to help fight three fires: the Holiday Farm fire in Lane County, the Powerline fire in Washington County and the Echo Mountain Complex Fire in Lincoln County.

Mike O’Hare, FEMA’s Region 10 administrator, approved the state’s requests for federal Fire Management Assistance Grants, saying the destruction the fires threaten constitute a “major disaster.”

>> Santiam and Lionshead fires

The biggest fires in the state were burning in Marion County, where the Santiam (formerly known as the Beachie Creek Fire) and Lionshead fires had burned through roughly 200,000 acres of wooded canyonlands. There was no containment on the Santiam Fire, as of Tuesday evening. The Lionshead Fire was 31 percent contained.

>> Holiday Farm Fire

Many were also facing evacuations in Lane County where the Holiday Farm fire had burned more than 126,000 acres as of Wednesday morning, Travis Medema, a state forestry manager, told the state forestry board. The fire began Monday night near Blue River, nestled in the foothills of the Cascades about 50 miles east of Eugene. On Tuesday, fire officials reported it had no containment.

>> Clackamas County fires

The entirety of Clackamas County was under some level of evacuation order, with officials saying any place in the county not at a Level 2 or 3 evacuation should consider themselves at evacuation Level 1, officials said, meaning be ready for evacuation.

>> Mount Hood fires

All recreation and public access is temporarily off limits on Mount Hood, as wildfires continue to burn around Oregon’s tallest peak.

The Mount Hood National Forest announced a forestwide closure Tuesday, due to “the threat of unprecedented and dangerous fire conditions,” caused by widespread heat and dryness, and unusually high winds that whipped across the region Monday and Tuesday.

>> Glendower and Almeda fires

A fire that began Tuesday morning in Ashland quickly spread north, carving a path of destruction through Talent and Phoenix and edging into the southern part of Medford by Wednesday.

Thousands have been told to evacuate in southern Oregon as strong winds fed the Almeda fire. The blaze has leveled hundreds of homes and wiped out businesses in a region that’s home to more than 80,000 people.

State officials late in the day closed Interstate 5 between the north Medford and Central Point interchanges, Exits 30 and 33.

Ashland Mayor John Stromberg told The Oregonian Wednesday that the fire mostly spared the city but spread north in Jackson County.

Ashland’s interim city administrator Adam Hanks told the mayor and City Council in a message early Wednesday that city workers who live in the surrounding region have been hit hard. Many lost their homes, he wrote.

“Fires are not at all out in Talent and Phoenix and the destruction is horribly significant,” Hanks said in his e-mail to city leaders, adding that winds are expected to settle as the afternoon approaches. “This is the beginning of a very long haul for the region.”

Medford Mayor Gary Wheeler said the fire spread north from Ashland Tuesday and has reached the southern edge of his city.