Community battles as massive blazes, spot fires, threaten

The New Era

In the aftermath of the windstorm that swept in on the evening of Labor Day, Sweet Home-area residents found themselves facing a threat last week that many had never experienced up close and personally: wildfire.

Strong east winds began sweeping through the area Monday evening, Sept. 7, producing gusts of about 50 mph, knocking down trees and wires, and triggering blown transformers.

Here’s a day-by-day recap of what’s happened:

Tuesday

By Tuesday morning a small fire had ignited on the hillside above Menear’s Bend on Highway 20 east of Foster. In the McKenzie River Valley another, much larger, fire started along Highway 126, west of McKenzie Bridge in the Vida area.

Called the Holiday Farm Fire, driven by the strong winds, the latter spread to over 30,000 acres by Tuesday afternoon. By Monday, Sep. 14, it totaled more than 165,000 acres, encompassing a nearly 190-mile fire perimeter. 

As crews battled the smaller Menear’s Bend fire on Tuesday, Cascadia residents began evacuating and Foster residents were raised to a Level 2 evacuation order, which meant they needed to be prepared for immediate evacuation should the notice be raised to Level 3.

By Tuesday morning, most of the power had been restored to Sweet Home, though a spokesman at Pacific Power said there were still 800 people without power along Highway 20 between Cascadia and Lebanon, with a large cluster north of Sweet Home and others near Foster Lake.

As of Tuesday evening, the Sweet Home Fire and Ambulance District had received 52 calls, one-eighth of its yearly average, in roughly 24 hours.

Also on Tuesday, Linn County Parks closed and evacuated Clear Lake, Whitcomb Creek, Sunnyside and Riverbend county parks, Cascadia State Park and the U.S. Forest Service campgrounds it manages along Highway 20, and the county closed Quartzville Road.

Sweet Home was raised to Level 1 early in the afternoon.

The county also closed John Neal Park, which is located in proximity to the raging wildfires in the Santiam Canyon that decimated the communities of Mill City, Gates, Lyons, Mehama, Detroit and other areas along Hwy 22 that have seen significant damage.

The fire left a swath of destruction along the Santiam Canyon. The fire was ultimately a conglomeration of multiple fires, including the Beachie Creek Fire, which started in August in the Mt. Jefferson Wilderness, and which spread west with the winds, joining at least 13 other fires that had been caused by downed powerlines between Detroit and Mehama.

Wednesday

By Wednesday morning the Holiday Farm Fire had established itself in the Calapooia drainage, on the north side of the Calapooia River, prompting Level 3 evacuation orders for residents of Upper Calapooia, Crescent Hill and Brush Creek roads from Hwy. 228 to the county line and and all side spur roads off these roads near Holley/Crawfordsville.

Wednesday evening, the Sweet Home Thriftway parking lot had numerous trucks and trailers – ordinary civilians looking to help transport livestock for those who need help (see story on page 9).

Thursday

The Holiday Farm Fire had spread to 144,695 acres by Thursday morning as treacherous fire behavior and weather conditions kept firefighters from accessing many areas of the fire. In many cases, however, they were able to move fire around and away from structures. They utilized small “burnout” operations to remove lighter fuels in the path of the main fire.

Residents continued to be restricted from entering the fire area.

Sweet Home School District, which had not started handouts of Chromebooks for online school on Tuesday, Sept. 8, as scheduled, announced Thursday morning that it was postponing Grab and Go lunch distributions and Chromebook pickups until Monday, Sept. 14.

By Thursday afternoon, with the wind dying down, the fire outlook improved, according to Sweet Home Fire Chief Dave Barringer.

The closest part of the fire was still 12 miles from Sweet Home, and conditions were much more favorable.

Milt Moran, president of Cacade Timber Consulting, said CTC, Campbell Global and Weyerhaeuser worked to establish fire lines to stop the fire’s movement, and made the connections by late in the week.

Barringer said Thursday that conditions were improving.

“Yesterday one of our biggest concerns was Brush Creek, Holley and Calapooia, and all of those have improved,” Barringer said, noting that the fire was still in timber areas, and had not reached any homes on the northern side of the blaze, and had moved from ground to tree canopy based on the fuel.

Friday

A new fire was reported at 7 a.m. Friday south of Crawfordsville on West Brush Creek Road by LCSO deputies on patrol.

The fire was contained by early afternoon. Oregon Department of Forestry Unit Forester Craig Pettinger said a line had been completed around the fire, which was contained at about 15 acres after a crew from the Holiday Farm Fire responded to assist.

That Crawfordsville fire was suspicious in nature, according to the Linn County Sheriff’s office.

“What we saw when we arrived, the fire probably came from multiple places, and it’s far enough away from the big fire that it’s not likely to be a spot fire,” Pettinger said.

The Linn County Sheriff’s Office was investigating.

First responders asked that citizens remain clear of evacuation areas and report any suspicious activity.

“If anybody sees anything suspicious, report it. But don’t go looking out in areas that should be evacuated,” Pettinger said.

Sweet Home Fire was joined quickly by Oregon Department of Forestry (ODF), along with Mohawk Fire and CTC, which provided a bulldozer and a Type 1 hotshot crew from the Holiday Fire.

Meanwhile, the Holiday Farm Fire south of Sweet Home had grown to 156,708 acres, but its spread had slowed, despite being zero-percent contained, according to Barringer, who urged citizens to remain watchful and pay attention to emergency alerts.

The numbers of personnel assigned to the Holiday Farms blaze had increased to 425 personnel, but resources continued to be spread thin, due to the large fire activity across the West and the nation.

Facebook chatter regarding causes of fires increased and some posters were discussing patrolling the area and the legality of shooting any arsonist caught in the act.

Sheriff Jim Yon posted a Facebook message Friday morning: “Please do not speculate on the cause of the fire because it has not been determined. It is not helping anyone. It is only scaring people.

“If you did not hear it from us or the fire departments, I would not trust it. Stop spreading rumors.”

Weekend

Evacuation levels were reduced from Level 3 to 2 in the Upper Calapooia and West Brush Creek areas over the weekend. Residents in Level 2 zones were allowed to return to their properties to make further preparations and tend to livestock, but were asked to remain ready to leave at a moment’s notice.

By Monday morning the Holiday Farm Fire was 6 percent contained at 165,023 acres, with 745 personnel on the fire, up significantly from early last week. The smoke, according to the USFS, helped drop temperatures and increase humidity.

Monday

Meanwhile, early Monday morning, eight fires were reported in the area of Scott Mountain, all suspicious in nature, according to officials (see story on page 15).

Sweet Home School District postponed Chromebook and Grab and Go lunch distributions until Wednesday “due to current evacuations levels and hazardous environmental conditions. We will monitor conditions and make adjustments as needed,” a district statement said.

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