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More than 5,600 Firefighters Tackle Oregon Fires as Winds Loom

“Almost every state has some sort of response to the state of Oregon and we can’t thank them enough as we now being to look towards recovery,” State Fire Marshal Mariana Ruiz-Temple said during an afternoon briefing.

by Hillary Borrud, The Oregonian, Portland, Ore. / September 15, 2020
Gov. Kate Brown and other top state officials working on the wildfire response gave an update on progress and challenges on Monday. In this file photo, wildfire smoke smothers the Portland metro area in early September 2020. TNS/Sean Meagher/Staff
(TNS) - Oregon is making progress fighting huge wildfires thanks to better weather and national firefighting resources but faces challenges in coming days with a forecast for wind and lightning, state officials said Monday.
 
“Almost every state has some sort of response to the state of Oregon and we can’t thank them enough as we now being to look towards recovery,” State Fire Marshal Mariana Ruiz-Temple said during an afternoon briefing.
 
Doug Grafe, chief of fire protection at the Oregon Department of Forestry, said firefighters were also hoping to start the week with rain that at one point was predicted for Monday.
 
“But it looks like currently the latest forecast puts that rain out in the Wednesday, Thursday range,” Grafe said. “And the unfortunate part of the forecast is that rain may come with some lightning and thunderstorms, particularly on the east side of the state which could cause new fire starts.”
 
Winds are also expected to pick up again in central and southern Oregon, although not nearly as strongly as the deadly dry winds that drove fires down the slopes of the Cascades last week, Grafe said.
 
With eight people now confirmed by the state to have died in the wildfires, Gov. Kate Brown said she was “at a loss for words over these deaths.”
 
“Dan and I are holding these families in hearts during this extremely difficult time,” the governor said, referring to her husband and Oregon’s first gentleman, Dan Little.
 
The governor said she expects firefighting teams from North Dakota and Michigan to arrive in Oregon this week, and Michigan, California and Washington have supplied emergency coordination support.
 
“We are incredibly grateful that our calls for assistance are also being answered, with crews from all over the country and Canada coming to help,” Brown said.
 
Adjutant General Michael Stencel said National Guard teams are coming from Idaho and likely Montana and Florida, to join the approximately 700 Oregon National Guard soldiers and airmen and airwomen already mobilized to help with traffic control and fighting fires. By the end of this week, Stencel said he expects 1,000 Oregon National Guard members to be mobilized with 250 heading to Camp Rilea in Warrenton for firefighting training.
 
Brown said there are also 30 Oregon inmate firefighting teams working the fires and scores of Federal Emergency Management Agency personnel on the ground. She sent a letter to President Donald Trump on Monday underscoring the need for him to declare a major disaster in Oregon. That would start the flow of significantly more federal aid, including direct assistance to people who lost their homes in the wildfires.
 
There are now approximately 5,600 firefighters working on wildfires around the state, Grafe said, up from 3,000 last week but slightly less than the 6,000 he would like to have. “I think we’ll need to add more resources and those continue to roll in as Governor Brown highlighted, from across the country and Canada.”
 
That number does not include approximately 600 seasonal firefighters the Oregon Department of Forestry hire to handle the initial attack on fires that will continue to pop up, Grafe said.
 
Grafe said the fires he is most concerned about in the coming days as winds could pick up are the Brattain fire near Paisley which is just over 30,000 acres.
 
Also at the top of Grafe’s list is the 14,000-acre Two Four Two fire at Chiloquin, which he said is completely surrounded by containment lines. “The wind will test those lines, but I continue to grow confidence we’ll be able to hold those,” Grafe said.
 
The Thielsen fire near Diamond Lake could also prove challenging, with 6,000 acres burning in heavy timber on federal lands, he said.
 
Winds could fuel the 30,000-acre South Obenchain fire near Medford and the east side of the 168,000-acre Lionshead fire burning west of Warm Springs.
 
Crews have been making good progress on the Alameda fire between Ashland and Medford, the 120,000-acre Archie fire in the Umpqua drainage, the 165,000-acre Holiday Farm fire along the McKenzie River and the 450,000-acre complex of the Riverside, Beachie and Lionshead fires in the Santiam River canyon and up in Clackamas County, Grafe said.
 
Last week, Grafe said the Riverside fire might merge with the Lionshead and Beachie fires. But on Monday he said fire crews are now doing their best to maintain a 30,000-acre “finger of timber” between them.
 
“That’s a really important piece of ground now.”
 
The Slater fire that burned into Oregon from northern California is around 30,000 acres and several fires along the coast have had containment lines hold for several days now, Grafe said.
 
Firefighters are still working to get solid containment on fires near Gaston and Newberg, he said.
 
State officials acknowledged Monday the dangerous levels of smoke blanketing the entire state are another clear sign Oregon has a way to go to gain control of the situation. Gabriela Goldfarb, environmental public health section manager at the Oregon Health Authority, said approximately 10 percent of visits to emergency rooms around the state right now are for respiratory symptoms such as asthma. Everyone who can should stay indoors, and pregnant women, children, older people and those with heart or respiratory conditions are at higher risk of adverse effects, Goldfarb said.
 
State officials urged people who want to help to donate funds directly to organizations responding to the devastation. The governor suggested the Red Cross, Oregon Food Bank and local relief agencies around the state. She also said three philanthropic organizations — the Ford Foundation, Meyer Memorial Trust and Oregon Community Foundation — are partnering to create a 2020 community rebuilding fund to “invest in long-term recovery, particularly for our most vulnerable communities.”
 
The governor praised Oregonians around the state doing what they can to help in the crisis, whether that be fighting fires, following guidelines from local officials or donating time and money. She told the story of Upper McKenzie Fire Chief Christiana Rainbow Plews who, along with her crew, stayed at on the fire lines even as the flames burned homes belonging to the chief and several volunteer firefighters.
 
“She and her team remind us of why we love this state,” Brown said. “This is just what we do here in Oregon, we care for each other no matter what.”
 
“The only way out of this crisis is through it and we’ll only get through it together,” Brown said.
 
-- Hillary Borrud: hborrud@oregonian.com; @hborrud
 
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