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3 People Confirmed Dead In Oregon Fires

Bradley W. Parks

A statewide update of wildfire news in Oregon

“Unprecedented fire.”

“Devastating consequences.”

“Substantially destroyed.”

Those were among the ways Oregon Gov. Kate Brown described the catastrophic wildfires blazing through large swaths of western Oregon Wednesday. The last statement was a reference to a handful of communities, including Phoenix and Talent in Jackson County, Blue River and Vida in Lane County and Detroit at the foot of Mt. Jefferson.

The same day Brown warned of historic losses of property and human lives, county officials confirmed at least three deaths discovered among the burned remains in the fires' wake: an individual in Jackson County was discovered where the Almeda Drive Fire burned, and two were found in Marion County, where a complex of fires has burned whole canyons east of the Willamette River.

Officials said they’re looking forward to a change in weather, expected Thursday, as an opportunity to make headway on the fire, even as they’re bracing to find more carnage as the wildfires continue to burn thousands of acres in the state.

Jackson County Sheriff Nate Sickler said a criminal investigation is underway into the person who died near where the Almeda Drive Fire started, close to Ashland, according to reporting by Jefferson Public Radio.

“Based on the circumstances there’s likely there could be additional [deaths]. But we won’t know that for some time,” Sickler said.

Sickler said some local residents refused to leave their homes as the fire approached, and the department doesn’t know yet what became of them.

The Marion County Sheriff’s office confirmed two deaths linked to wildfires that are ravaging Oregon this week.

Sheriff Joe Kast said Wednesday afternoon that search and rescue teams found the people dead in a car. They were fleeing from the Santiam Fire.

The Salem Statesman Journal reports the two deceased victims are a 13-year-old Wyatt Tofte and his grandmother, 71-year-old Peggy Mosso. The newspaper also reports the boy’s mother survived the fire but is in critical condition.

Governor warns Oregonians to brace for extensive loss
State leaders warned Oregonians Wednesday they would learn of further destruction as wildfires continued to spread across Oregon and Washington, fueled by the dry winds and flames that reignited old fires and started new ones across the state.

Officials said the situation is unprecedented, and it could be days before the fires are under control. The combined fires burned hundreds of thousands of acres in a single day, destroying homes while residents fled to smoke-filled cities.

“This could be the greatest loss of human lives and property due to wildfire in our state’s history,” Oregon Gov. Kate Brown said at a press conference.

The Northwest Interagency Coordination Center said Wednesday morning that fires in Oregon and Washington burned 515,135 acres in a 24-hour timespan, and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management said in a tweet Wednesday that 27 large fires are burning more than 900,000 acres in the Northwest currently.

There are roughly 4,000 firefighters working in both states, but personnel is moving from fire to fire so quickly the NWICC could not give details on how many people were working a given fire at the moment.

Northwest Oregon state-managed forests closed to public
The Oregon Department of Forestry Wednesday closed the Tillamook, Clatsop and Santiam state forests to the public, effective immediately. The department has also closed state forestlands in Polk, Lincoln and Benton counties.

The Santiam State Forest is closed until further notice. All other closures will last at least through Sunday.

Oregon requests federal assistance
Gov. Brown is requesting federal assistance for wildfires burning across the state.

All seven members of Oregon’s Congressional Delegation supported Brown’s request for a state Emergency Declaration in a letter sent Wednesday to President Donald Trump.

“The number and scale of fires burning on Oregon’s landscape at the moment are unprecedented, and urgent action is necessary,” the letter said.

The request hopes to secure funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for Oregon agencies' immediate recovery operations.

“We’re talking about assistance that keeps people safe,” said U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden. “They are going to go for such basic things like water, and assistance in getting to safety — this is for those immediate needs.”

The request for disaster relief still needs to be approved by President Trump, but Wyden said the state’s congressional delegation is united in keeping up pressure to make sure Oregonians receive the assistance.

Power outages persist
As of midday Wednesday, more than 50,000 people were without power across much of western Oregon. Portland General Electric listed more than 33,000 customers without power in Washington, Marion, Yamhill and Multnomah counties. Most of the company’s outages were in Clackamas County.

Pacific Power said it had more than 18,000 customers without electricity in Jackson, Lincoln, Linn and Marion counties. More than 12,000 of those outages were in the Medford area.

Roads and highways indefinitely closed across the state
With fires, come road closures. Many of Oregon’s fires started along the long, twisting highways that cross Oregon’s mountain ranges. These roads are usually the only way over the high mountains for miles around, and closing even one can have major impacts on travel and traffic across the region. As of Wednesday morning, four of nine routes over the Cascade Mountains are closed entirely. Closures also exist on connecting roads, as well as delays, making travel even more difficult. Check the ODOT-run Tripcheck before making travel or evacuation plans.

In Southern Oregon, Highway 66 — the primary road that connects the Rogue River Valley to the Klamath Basin remains open — technically. Travel is complicated by a fire that has closed Highway 97 heading north out of Klamath Falls, forcing any traffic to take a circuitous route around the fire. The region also connects to Ashland and Medford via Highways 62 and 140. Although both roads remain open, fires burning near the interchange in Medford have made travel slow and unreliable. Where the roads connect to Interstate 5, some lanes are still closed for fires and serious traffic delays stretch for miles.

Highway 199, which connects the Southern Oregon and Northern California coast to I-5, is also closed for a fire. The nearest open routes over the coast range are over 80 miles to the north or south. Elsewhere in Southern Oregon, Highway 138, which connects Roseburg to Highway 97 is also closed. The nearest routes over the Cascades start more than 50 miles north in Eugene, or south, in Ashland and Medford.

Of the two routes from Eugene to Highway 97, only Highway 58 is open. It’s also the only route over the Cascades open in all of Central Oregon. Travelers reported delays Tuesday, particularly in Oakridge, where power had been disconnected to prevent further fires. Highways 126, 20, 22 and 242, which connect the south and central Willamette Valley to Central Oregon remain closed. In the northern Willamette Valley, Highway 26 remains open.

On the Oregon Coast, widespread power outages are currently slowing traffic. Highway 18 out of Lincoln City is closed due to a wildfire. A small fire on Highway 34 near Waldport temporarily closed the road, but it is now open again. Another small fire on Highway 36 is causing two-hour delays. The state recommends taking Highway 126 from Mapleton toward Eugene and then heading north, if possible.

In Clackamas County, several roads are closed for fires, particularly around Molalla and Estacada. The situation there is changing rapidly. County officials ask that individuals avoid non-essential travel through the region to keep roads clear for evacuees and emergency officials.

Fires have brought down cell towers across the state as well. If travelling in an unknown area, paper copies of the route are advisable in case cell or GPS signals are lost.

There are several forest service roads that cross the mountains throughout the state. Many were preemptively closed due to fire risk. Almost 2 million acres of forest are closed to recreation in the Willamette and Mount Hood national forests, including forest service roads.

State officials ask that Oregonians avoid driving on dirt or grassy roads, make sure all chains are secured, and take all steps possible to avoid starting further fires. Several fires in the state have caused debris slides. It’s unclear when roads will be open again. In some cases, it may take a while before repair crews can make it back in, and even longer before the roads are fully open.

Copyright 2020 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Erin Ross
Meerah Powell is a general assignment and breaking news reporter for OPB. She previously worked as a news reporter and podcast producer for Eugene Weekly in her hometown of Eugene, Oregon. Along with writing and audio work, Meerah also has experience with photography and videography. She graduated from the University of Oregon's School of Journalism and Communication.