OLYMPIA, Wash. – There were 18 large fires burning in Oregon and Washington Saturday, leading to evacuations and targeted power outages in Oregon as the challenge of dry and windy conditions continued in the region.
According to the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center, there are nearly 406 square miles (1051 square kilometers) of active, uncontained fires and nearly 5,000 people on the ground fighting them in the two states.
The blazes are among more than 90 active fires across the country, including in Montana, California and Idaho, the National Interagency Fire Center said. Scientists say climate change has made the West warmer and drier over the last three decades and will continue to make weather more extreme and wildfires more frequent and destructive.
In Washington state, the Goat Rocks Fire, south of Mount Rainier National Park, was started by lightning and has led to the closure of U.S. Highway 12 and the evacuation of neighborhoods east of the city of Packwood. Evacuations were also issued for several communities in Cowlitz County in response to the Kalama fire in Gifford Pinchot National Forest southwest of Mount St. Helens.
Another mountain pass on U.S. Highway 2 was closed Saturday because of the Bolt Creek Fire, which sparked evacuations for 300 to 400 homes and was dropping ash in Everett and blowing smoke into the suburbs of Seattle.
That fire grew quickly throughout the day, doubling over about two hours to about 3 square miles (nearly 8 square kilometers), and was burning timber in rugged terrain, according to the Washington State Department of Natural Resources.
Peter Mongillo, a spokesman with Snohomish Regional Fire and Rescue, was nearby as part of the overall incident command center, and said that high-voltage transmission lines owned by Bonneville Power Administration that run across the Cascade Mountains were at risk because of the amount of smoke and particulates in the air, which can affect the lines.
“It increases the chances of arcing and starting a fire or even shutting down the power line,” he said in a phone interview.
Mongillo said that it was recommended that Bonneville turn the lines off, but he said that for now Bonneville is keeping the lines on and will continue to monitor.
Bonneville spokesman Kevin Wingert said that there are three lines in the area, and that right now the “location of the fire and the density of smoke is such that we do not have an operational or safety need to take those lines out of service.”
Wingert said that if conditions changed and those lines did need to be taken out of service, there would likely be no loss in service to customers due to other transmission lines that are in service. Both Puget Sound Energy, which covers customers in Seattle and elsewhere and Snohomish County Public Utility District are Bonneville customers.
Mongillo said that there are firefighters on the ground all up and down Highway 2 but they haven’t been able to get aerial support on the fire because of the high level of smoke and whipping winds.
“It’s a wait and see right now,” he said. “We’re looking at about 24 hours of winds coming from the east blowing to the west.”
A red flag warming in Washington remains in effect through Sunday night, meaning that high temperatures, low humidity and strong winds will complicate fire conditions.
In Oregon, the Clackamas County Sheriff’s Office announced the evacuation order of campers from Milo McIver State Park late Friday night, which is about 24 miles (38.6 kilometers) southeast of Portland. Early Saturday morning, residents in several communities west of the park were told to be ready to evacuate.
In hopes of lessening the risk of more fires, Portland General Electric initially halted power to about 30,000 customers in 12 service areas but that number increased to more than 37,000 by Saturday. By late Saturday afternoon that number had dropped back down to about 30,000. Pacific Power shut down service to more than 7,000 customers in a small community on the Pacific Coast, where a wildfire burned two years ago, and in pockets southeast of the state capitol of Salem. The number of Pacific Power customers without service increased to 12,000 on Saturday.
The largest fire in Oregon is the Double Creek Fire burning in the northeastern part of the state near the Idaho border. As of Saturday, the fire had burned more than 230 square miles (595 square kilometers). The Northwest Interagency Coordination Center said that the fire grew by 65 square miles (168 square kilometers) overnight.
In central Oregon, the Cedar Creek Fire east of Oakridge has burned nearly 81 square miles (210 square kilometers). On Friday, officials ordered residents to immediately leave the greater Oakridge, Westfir and High Prairie areas due to increased fire activity.
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