A roadside sign alerts drivers of a closure on Highway 22 on Wednesday, September 9. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)
UPDATE 5 p.m: State revises count of evacuees in state to 500,000.
UPDATE 4:50 p.m.: Two suspected of looting in burn zone arrested
Two monster wildfires are expected to merge northeast of Salem Thursday, forcing new evacuations and posing new hazards for homeowners, businesses and firefighters in the Cascade foothills and down into the Willamette Valley’s farmland.
The spread west of the wildfires triggered officials Thursday afternoon to order the evacuation of Molalla while communities such as Silverton remained on alert to be ready to go. Wildfire also had reached into Silver Falls State Park by Wednesday, according to Chris Havel, a spokesman for the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department. The park, which had more than a million visitors last year and is the largest state park in Oregon, has been closed because of the approaching fires.
The merger of the Riverside Fire, burning in Clackamas County, and the Beachie Creek Fire, burning east of Salem, would come as Oregon’s firefighting resources are strained with major fires burning out of control in the Santiam Canyon, along the McKenzie River, in southern Oregon and along the coast.
By Thursday morning, the Beachie Creek Fire had covered 182,000 acres up from the 156,000 acres that were recorded over Tuesday night. Officials decided to drop the plan to change the name of Beachie Creek to Santiam, citing logistical reasons to stay with the original name. The Lionshead Fire on its east flank was at 131,000, and the Riverside Fire was 120,000 acres.
An estimated 500,000 people have been evacuated across the state from communities that in some instances have been largely reduced to rubble by the fast-moving fires.
To combat the spreading fires, Gov. Kate Brown has asked for federal help, including deployment of a U.S. Army battalion trained in firefighting.
Doug Grafe, chief of fire protection for the Oregon Department of Forestry, said in a press briefing Thursday that Oregon needs to nearly double its firefighting crews. He said about 3,000 firefighters are on the task now.
Those crews will get help in the coming days from the Oregon National Guard, which expects to dispatch three teams of 125 soldiers trained in firefighting. They are expected to arrive over the weekend to help with the Holiday Farm Fire burning east of Springfield.
The National Guard also will swing into action on Friday at roadblocks in Marion and Lane counties as authorities try to tighten access to evacuated areas. On Wednesday, Oregon Highway 22 through the Santiam Canyon saw a steady stream of people going into burned areas to check on their property or to just look.
The Marion County Sheriff's Office announced Thursday afternoon deputies arrested two men suspected of looting in the evacuated area after receiving a call about a suspicious van in Detroit. The driver evaded police, driving west on Highway 22, according to a news release. Deputies used spike strips to stop the vehicle in the Sublimity area and arrested Anthony T. Bodda, 21, and Alexander J. Jones, 36. Deputies recovered "several items" from inside the van, but the news release did not detail what was stolen.
In Thursday afternoon’s briefing, Brown said wildfires so far had covered 900,000 acres – nearly twice what the total fire season average has been in the past 10 years.
“We have never seen this amount of uncontained fire across our state,” Brown said.
She said the hoped-for relief in the weather wasn’t happening as fast as forecasters expected.
“We are now facing unstable air conditions that continue to make response efforts very, very difficult,” Brown said.
She said that besides asking for U.S. troops to come to Oregon’s aid, Oregon National Guard officials were reaching out to other states seeking help from their National Guard operations.
The challenge is so great, she said, that she is asking Oregon universities and colleges to make it possible for students who are working as firefighters to stay on duty without being penalized for missing school.
In briefings Thursday morning, state and federal fire officials described their efforts to continue search-and-rescue missions in the Beachie Creek Fire. (They explained a plan to change the name to the Santiam Fire has been scrapped). They said fire crews also have worked to clear major roads in the Santiam Canyon to clear the way for rescuers and to set up circumstances to begin containing the fire.
“Rescue operations have been extensive and wide-ranging,” according to a written fire summary issued Thursday by Beachie Creek Fire managers. “Rescues have varied widely. In some cases individuals were impeded by downed trees and roadway blockages while others escaped the heavy smoke, high heat and flames by moving to local waterways.”
Fire officials had no information on the number of people rescued or how many were hospitalized. At least two people have died in the Mehama area and others are still missing.
The report said that 9,764 structures in the Santiam Canyon were covered by the evacuation orders issued Monday into Tuesday.
Correction: Scotts Mills has been under an evacuation order since Tuesday evening. An earlier version indicated the evacuation order was active on Thursday.
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