Winds bring a temporary respite from smoke as Oregon wildfires grow

Jul 16, 2021
Originally published on July 15, 2021 6:55 pm

Even as wildfires continued to burn across Oregon on Thursday, wind offered temporary respite to many communities that have been blanketed in the heaviest wildfire smoke. But the U.S. Interagency Wildland Fire Air Quality Response Program cautions there could well be more smoke to come, especially in the southern, central and eastern areas of the state.

Strong winds overnight Wednesday into Thursday cleared smoke in the Klamath Falls area, which had been heavily affected by the largest wildfire now burning in the United States — the Bootleg Fire. Smoke forecasts call for similar weather patterns overnight Thursday into Friday, with smoke likely to be heavier in the Sprague River Valley and the Harney Basin and low-lying areas.

In the Roseburg area and the south Oregon Cascades, near the Jack Fire, forecasters also cautioned that smoke may increase slightly over the next few days. And in Northeast Oregon and across the state border into Washington, forecasters expected some smoke in the morning Friday with afternoon winds helping improve air quality.

A survey of wildfire smoke in Oregon released Thursday found that the number of days Oregonians are exposed to hazardous wildfire smoke is increasing in every corner of the state. From 1989 to 2014, Klamath Falls averaged 1.4 of days with air quality index values deemed unhealthy for sensitive groups, or worse, per year. From 2015 to 2020, the community averaged more than 13 of those poor air quality days per year, according to the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality assessment. Before 2015, Portland had not had a single day with air quality deemed unhealthy for sensitive groups or worse. The city averaged about 4.6 such days per year from 2015 to 2020. And Bend has seen a 24-fold increase in how often its air is rated so poorly.

Wildfire smoke can be hazardous, especially when there’s a lot of smoke particles in the air. A 2018 study estimated that by 2100, as climate change makes wildfires larger and more common, the smoke they cause could kill up to 44,000 people a year.

The Bootleg Fire was 227,234 acres and 7% contained as of Thursday morning. It continued to burn actively Wednesday night into Thursday. Over 10,000 additional acres burned, and more are expected. It remains the largest fire in the U.S.

“This fire is going to continue to grow — the extremely dry vegetation and weather are not in our favor,” said Joel Hessel, who is an incident commander on the Bootleg Fire. Crews are working to prepare new containment lines and protect structures. There are concerns that if the fire spreads further east, it could burn in beetle-killed timber.

Due to increased fire activity on the nearby Log Fire, northeast of the Bootleg, fire evacuations near Summer Lake have increased. Evacuation zones near the Gearhart Wilderness and the town of Paisley are also increasing. See the link below for an interactive fire map.

Information on evacuations and road closures can be found here.

The Bruler Fire was reported to be 155 acres on Thursday — up significantly from earlier estimates, but the incident command center says that’s mostly due to better mapping, not to fire growth. A fire line has been started around the entirety of the Bruler Fire perimeter and completed in some areas. Thanks to additional firefighting resources, the Bruler Fire stayed within the perimeter. Firefighters will begin mopping up the perimeter to contain the fire, but because the terrain is rugged, it is expected to take several weeks.

The Darlene Fire was estimated to be 686 acres and 1% contained as of Thursday afternoon. At last report, the fire was threatening 30 residences and had destroyed three. According to firefighting incident reports, crews focused on strengthening containment lines Thursday and watching for spot fires that might arise outside established lines. Officials asked drivers in the area to go slow on unpaved to keep down dust in the area.

Evacuation information is being posted here.

The Grandview Fire north of Sisters was 5,971 acres and 14% contained as of midday Thursday. Although three new spot fires jumped the lines Wednesday, crews were able to stop them quickly. The cool weather aided containment efforts, and six Oregon National Air Guard helicopters arrived Thursday to help expand containment lines.

“We’ve turned the first stage and now we’re going into the mop-up phase,” John Pellissier, operations section chief with the Oregon Department of Forestry, said in a Thursday update on progress against the Grandview Fire. Crews spend Thursday hardening the perimeter and are working to get a full 25 feet of charred perimeter depth, with a goal of continuing to deepen the perimeter in the days ahead, he said.

There were concerns that weather associated with Thursday’s red flag warning could give the fire the energy to jump containment lines, but enough progress had been made on the fire by Thursday that some structure-protecting crews planned to move to other, more active fires. Midday Thursday, officials announced that they were closing all Forest Service-managed roads, trailheads and trails within the Grandview Fire perimeter.

The southeast edge of the fire was the biggest area of concern on Thursday because of steep and rocky terrain in that area, Pellissier said.

Evacuation information is available here. The helpline for the Grandview Fire is 541-633-7410. Updates are being posted at www.centraloregonfire.org.

The Jack Fire was over 15,000 acres and was 20% contained as of midday Thursday. Evacuation levels for some communities have decreased. Crews plan to continue mopping up hot spots and shoring up containment lines. Cooler temperatures and lighter winds today are expected to help firefighters make some headway. Although the fire is secured near Highway 138, highway 138E remains closed until ODOT geologists have had the opportunity to clear the highway of hazards, and hope to reopen in time for the weekend. Residents can return to homes along the highway by showing valid photo identification that proves their address.

Evacuation and closure information can be found here, and trail and forest closures can be found here.

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