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Oregon wildfires continue to wreak havoc, but cooler weather may help

by Oregon Public Radio staff reports |

After five days of enormous wildfires consuming the landscape up and down western Oregon, officials count more than 1 million acres burned and tens of thousands of people forced to leave their homes. Countless homes and businesses have been scorched, even as dry, hot weather that fueled the fires earlier in the week appears to be moderating.

Dozens of people remain unaccounted for in parts of the state, and at least six deaths had been confirmed due to the wildfires by late Friday. In some parts of the state, as much one-third of electricity consumers remained without power Saturday morning.

Poor air quality from the wildfire smoke is affecting much of the region – with Portland earning the unpleasant ranking as the major city with the worst air quality in the world, although smaller Oregon cities are enduring even worse air quality on both sides of the Cascades. An air quality warning was issued Saturday morning for the entire state and southwest Washington.

The smoke layer kept temperatures low and humidity levels high yesterday, aiding firefighting efforts. Favorable weather conditions are expected to continue Saturday.

Firefighters made progress on the Lionshead Fire overnight, which started near Mount Jefferson and grew to merge with the Beachie Creek Fire (also known as the Santiam Fire) near Detroit, forcing fire crews and evacuees to make a harrowing escape through the burning forest.

Dry conditions allowed the Beachie Creek Fire to spread north toward the Riverside Fire Friday, but high nighttime humidity levels slowed the progress and allowed crews to continue to work on fire lines to the north and northwest. There are currently almost 14,000 structures under Level 3 “Go Now” evacuation orders from the Beachie Creek Fire, and over 18,500 homes remain under Level 2 “Get Set” orders.

Officials said the promised change in weather has allowed crews to continue containment operations and work to secure fire lines. Smoke from the fires blocked the sun, and kept temperatures cool and humidity high. Crews plan to build fire lines in the Warm Springs Reservation Saturday, and said they will backburn (start a small fire moving toward the larger fire) to create a "catcher’s mitt” of already-burned land along the northern and eastern edge of the fire. Crews were continuing to work to protect structures in the path of the fire in all directions.

The Two Four Two Fire continues to burn in Klamath County, but officials said Saturday that crews had completed a line around the fire, which was 7 percent contained as of mid-morning. The fire had destroyed eight homes and damaged 35 others as of the most recent report.

The Riverside Fire crept two miles closer to Estacada overnight Friday, and the leading edge was half a mile away from Estacada as of 9 a.m. Saturday. Officials planned to protect structures and build fire lines, as conditions allow. Officials said they expected better weather Saturday, as the smoke continues to block the sun.

Still, they expect the fire to continue to progress northwest along both sides of the Clackamas River corridor toward Estacada during the day and further overnight into Sunday.