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Live updates: Southern Oregon fires could get whipped up by strong winds

Forecasters are warning that wildfires could spread significantly Sunday in Southern Oregon, with gusty winds of up to 40 miles-per-hour expected to exacerbate conditions.

The National Weather Service in Medford issued a Red Flag Warning early Sunday, citing dry weather and strong winds expected to blow through the region later in the day. The weather service predicted the wind and humidity will “likely contribute to a significant spread of new and existing fires.”

The warning is in effect 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday for the Obenchain and Almeda fires, as well as in parts of the Fremont-Winema and Rogue River/Siskiyou national forests and across the state line into Northern California.

Officials on Friday said more than 1 million acres had burned in a matter of days. Dozens of people remain unaccounted for in parts of the state, and at least nine deaths had been confirmed due to the wildfires by late Saturday.

These online tools offer up-to-the-minute emergency information on wildfires, evacuations and air quality in the Pacific Northwest:

Portland’s air quality is so hazardous, it’s off the charts, according to the EPA’S AirNow.gov website.

Any air quality index above 300 is considered hazardous. Anything greater than 500 is off the index.

On Sunday morning, Portland’s air quality index value hovered around 516.

Portland is holding down first place in the rankings of major cities with the worst air quality in the world. Smaller and cities towns in Oregon are faring even worse as clouds of smoke continue to blow through the region. On Sunday morning, residents in Madras and Roseburg were breathing in air considered more dangerous than Portland’s, with index values of 543 and 577 respectively.

An air quality advisory remains in effect until noon Monday for all of for all of southwest Washington and northwest Oregon.

Dense fog rolled in this morning across a large swath of the state Sunday morning, reducing visibility even further along the North Oregon Coast, Central Willamette Valley, Lower Columbia and Greater Portland Metro Area. The National Weather Service is warning of dangerous driving conditions with poor visibility in some areas reduced to one-quarter mile.

Authorities say nearly everybody listed as missing from a wildfire in southern Oregon have been accounted for, according to the Associated Press.

Authorities earlier this week said as many as 50 people could be missing from the Almeda Fire in the Ashland area. They now say the number of people unaccounted for is down to one.

The Jackson County Sheriff’s Office said in a statement they expect this number could fluctuate. Officials have said more people are missing from other fires and the number of fatalities is likely to rise.

A bit of good news came late Saturday night as Clackamas County downgraded evacuation levels for Sandy, Oregon City and Canby to Level 1 “Be Ready” after making progress on the Riverside Fire.

The Sandy police department said fire danger remained high and air quality in the area is still hazardous. Residents are encouraged to stay indoors.

“While this is good news for Sandy, there are still neighboring communities that are battling these fires,” they said in a statement. “The weather conditions have been favorable, but conditions are still dynamic.”

The Clackamas County Sheriff’s Office said Saturday it had been flooded by calls reporting possible burglaries and suspicious vehicles and people. Most did not result in any charge.

“The vast majority were determined to be non-criminal in nature,” the statement read.

Between Sept. 8-10, the office said deputies responded to approximately 330 calls in the county’s areas under a Level 2 “Be Ready” and Level 3 “Go Now” evacuation order. They said it was a 405% increase over the calls they fielded two days prior. Few led to arrests.

The sheriff’s office said there were 10 arrests made from Sept. 5-10.

Firefighters have made progress on the Holiday Farm Fire Saturday, which has so far burned 156,700 acres in Lane County. As of 9 p.m. Saturday, the fire’s containment was reported by authorities at 5% for the first time. There has so far been one reported death associated with the fire.

Lionshead Fire, measured at 138,700 acres, is also estimated to be 5% contained.

The Beachie Creek Fire was listed Sunday morning as having burned 188,600 acres and remained 0% contained. The Riverside fire also is not listed as having any level of containment. Four reported deaths from the fire have been confirmed by authorities.

The Archie Creek fire in Douglas County is now 10% contained and has burned an estimated 116,000 acres.

The Almeda Fire, which destroyed an estimated 600 homes as it tore through the towns of Phoenix and Talent earlier in the week, is now listed as 60% contained. It has burned 5,700 acres and is responsible for at least four deaths.

Coronavirus had already complicated the way school was set to look and function this fall for Oregonians. Coupled with the pandemic, the danger of wildfire driving thousands of Oregonians from their homes has caused multiple K-12 school districts to delay the start of classes.

Brent Barry, superintendent of the Phoenix-Talent School District in Southern Oregon, said more than half of the district’s families had been displaced or lost their homes due to the Almeda Fire that ripped through the area Tuesday.

“At this point we are connecting with every one of our families to find out the immediate and urgent needs of students and family members to make sure everyone is safe, that they have their basic needs met as far as shelter and food and things that they need just to feel comfortable just moving on from this which will take months and years really,” Barry said.

Because so many teachers and students are displaced, and because parts of Phoenix and Talent are still under Level 3 evacuation orders, the district decided to delay the start of the school year further.

In a fire briefing Saturday afternoon, Clackamas County Fire asked residents to conserve water usage while firefighters continued to work on a number of large fires there that threatened lives and property.

Capt. Brandon Paxton, the fire department’s public information officer, said firefighters have had success managing fires as weather became cooler and less windy late in the week. But he warned county residents that they need every resource available to manage three large fires they are in charge of managing — which had burned an estimated 5,000 acres in the county as of Saturday afternoon.

“Please don’t turn on your water. We’re at risk of a serious water shortage," Paxton said. "There’s a very real potential for that. We want to make sure that isn’t the case.”

He added that smoky conditions have made it challenging for firefighters to see exactly where fires are burning and to deploy air resources. Paxton said fire staff have not yet been able to assess how many structures have been lost in the fires, but they hoped to have more information in the coming days and weeks as the weather continues to be favorable to firefighting.

“That’s what’s driving this whole scene: Mother Nature,” Paxton said. “We are at the mercy of that, and really taking the time to evaluate those weather conditions.”

Some good news came late Saturday night as Clackamas County downgraded evacuation levels for Sandy, Oregon City and Canby to Level 1 “Be Ready” after making progress on the Riverside Fire.

The Oregon State Police announced Saturday that it has appointed a new state fire marshal, even as more than 1 million acres burned in the state.

Mariana Ruiz-Temple is now Oregon’s acting state fire marshal. OSP said former Fire Marshal Jim Walker has been placed on paid administrative leave.

“Mariana is assuming this position as Oregon is in an unprecedented crisis which demands an urgent response,” OSP Superintendent Travis Hampton said in a statement. “This response and the circumstances necessitated a leadership change. I have the absolute confidence in Mariana to lead OSFM operations through this critical time. She is tested, trusted and respected — having the rare combination of technical aptitude in field operations and administration.”

Shortly after the announced change, Walker offered to resign his post, and Hampton accepted that resignation, effective immediately.

The Marion County Sheriff’s Office announced Saturday that some towns threatened by the Beachie Creek Fire could downgrade from Level 2 to Level 1 evacuation status.

The agency moved Stayton, Sublimity, Aumsville, Silverton and Mt. Angel to the lower Level 1 “Get Set” status after closely consulting with fire officials managing the Beachie Creek Fire.

“In addition, the Army Corps of Engineers has been in communications with us and we’re working on determining when and where we can get the boats out of the lake, for those folks that have boats on Detroit Lake,” Sheriff Joe Kast said in a statement.

Many of the communities hardest hit by the Beachie Creek Fire remain under a Level 3 “Go Now” evacuation order. Those include Detroit, Idahna, Breitenbush, Lyons, Mehama, Mill City, Gates, the North Fork Road recreation area and Scotts Mills.

Copyright 2020 Oregon Public Broadcasting