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Worrisome weekend weather for fire conditions in Oregon

Smoke rises from the Double Creek Fire in Wallowa County, Sept. 8, 2022. Fire personnel from other parts of Oregon have responded to the wildfire, currently the state's largest, including this crew vehicle from Gaston Fire.
Courtesy Oregon State Fire Marshal - Washington County Task Force
Smoke rises from the Double Creek Fire in Wallowa County, Sept. 8, 2022. Fire personnel from other parts of Oregon have responded to the wildfire, currently the state's largest, including this crew vehicle from Gaston Fire.

Oregon’s wildfire season has become more threatening this week, with evacuations in some parts of the state, smoky skies elsewhere, schools canceled ahead of planned power outages, and hundreds of thousands of acres now ablaze. Here are highlights from news across the region:

Risky conditions

The National Weather service is warning that strong, gusty winds and low humidity will bring extreme fire danger to western Oregon and Washington this weekend.

Utility companies are shutting off power in high risk areas to keep fallen lines from sparking new fires.

Areas from the Columbia River Gorge south to Douglas County in western Oregon are most at risk from the forecasted east winds.

Fire crews have been sent to those areas in an effort to quickly respond to fires that spark.

Portland General Electric plans to shut off power in 10 areas because of the risk of fire, affecting about 30,000 customers.

Pacific Power notified about 12,000 customers that it would start shutting power off early this morning.

Governor Kate Brown says Oregonians should continue to be prepared, have a plan in place and to do anything they can to prevent human-caused fires.

The fires burning in Oregon

As of Friday morning, here are the statuses of the three largest wildfires across the state:

· The Double Creek Fire in Wallowa County in Eastern Oregon is 137,179 acres and 15% contained.

· The Cedar Creek Fire, located 15 miles east of Oakridge, is 33,099 acres and 12% contained.

· The Rum Creek Fire in Josephine County in southwest Oregon is 21,347 acres and 46% contained.

Fighting the Double Creek Fire and others in Eastern Oregon

Firefighters have managed to protect most structures from a series of wildfires throughout Wallowa County, but the future of the fires remains uncertain.

At a community meeting in Joseph Thursday, state and federal officials provided updates on the status of the fires and fielded questions from residents.

The officials told the audience that only a small handful of structures had been destroyed by the fire and no primary homes had burned down yet. Firefighters felt like they were in good position to protect Imnaha from the Double Creek Fire and had created breaks to protect the city of Lostine should the Sturgill Fire, one of three fires burning in the Eagle Cap Wilderness, suddenly surge north.

But as residents asked about whether certain communities and properties were at risk, the speakers cautioned that the future of the fires was dependent on the weather.

Incident commander Jason Loomis said the Double Creek Fire was complicated by a difficult topography and a short staff.

“This is a tough piece of ground,” he said. “Everything’s north-south aligned. To try to turn the corner and go east-west across all those drainages, draws and ridges is going to be a challenge. That’s not only my opinion, that’s a fact. It’s going to be very difficult to try to turn the corner there.”

Wallowa County resident Charles McDaniel was critical of the firefighters decision to contain the Sturgill Fire while letting it burn naturally, saying it could have been put out much earlier in the process. The officials defended the practice of letting some fires in the wilderness burn to help the ecosystem become more adaptable.

In a press release Friday morning, fire officials announced the Double Creek Fire grew roughly 37,000 acres in a day. “The lightning caused Double Creek Fire is a full suppression fire, and the protection of lives and property remain the primary objectives of this incident. Firefighters continued firing operations to the north from the Bed and Breakfast along Lower Imnaha Road, keeping ahead of the fire’s progress,” officials said in the release.

Public safety power outages

Public safety power shutoffs began early Friday morning for Pacific Power and Portland General Electric customers in high fire risk zones.

Rural areas prone to high winds saw the first power shutoffs. PGE began its scheduled outages with customers in the Mt. Hood Corridor and the foothills, followed by those in the Columbia Gorge. The utility planned shutoffs for eight more areas, including in Portland’s West Hills, to begin by early afternoon.

View the PGE public safety power outage map

The Portland Bureau of Transportation warned late Thursday night that drivers should use extreme caution as traffic signals, flashing beacons and street lights in the West Hills would be losing power.

Pacific Power planned to begin its shutoff schedule with areas of Douglas County early Friday morning, followed by parts of Linn, Marion, Lincoln, Tillamook and Polk counties.

View the Pacific Power public safety power outage map

Both PGE and Pacific Power are opening community resource centers Friday for people who’ve lost power in their homes.

Schools close out of caution

Several Oregon schools are closed Friday due to planned power outages, related to the rising risks of wildfires.

The Corbett, Santiam Canyon, Sweet Home, Gaston, Silver Falls and Oregon Trail school districts are all in areas where Pacific Power and Portland General Electric are conducting public safety power shutoffs. In Portland, Skyline and East Sylvan schools were closed.

Up to 42,000 total customers of both utilities could lose power starting Friday to reduce the threat of wildfires.

Utility officials are recommending people in shut-off areas prepare emergency kits with water, food and cash.

Resources for smoke or fire threats

Related: How to prepare for heat, fire and smoke in Oregon

Related: How to tighten up your emergency plan

Related: How to prepare your home for wildfire

Copyright 2022 Oregon Public Broadcasting. To see more, visit Oregon Public Broadcasting.