Red flag warning turns out to be real deal as winds, heavy smoke sweep into Sweet Home

By Scott Swanson

Of The New Era

A red flag warning got very real very fast for Sweet Home residents Monday evening, Sept. 7, as blustery winds from the north and east blew heavy smoke into town.

Predictions for a combination of high winds at 15-30 mph from the east with gusts up to 50 mph, low humidity, proved out starting about 6 p.m. bringing smoke from fires in the Cascades into town and prompting the National Weather Service to issue air quality warnings for the area.

Forecasters also warned that dry fuels could cause rapid spread of wildfires burning in the Detroit Lake and Jefferson Wilderness areas.

The red flag warning is in effect for wind and low humidity through Wednesday evening. The public is asked to observe public use restrictions to help limit potential new starts during this time.

Fire managers warned Monday that the Lionshead Fire, located east of Detroit Lake on the south edge of the Warms Springs Reservation, was threatening to spread onto the Willamette National Forest.

Shortly after midnight Tuesday, the Marion County Sheriff’s Office issued a Level 3 – “Go” evacuation notice to residents in the Santiam Canyon from the community of Mehama east to Idanha including Gates, Mill City, Detroit, Idanha and the North Fork corridor. Residents were being urged leave the area immediately.

The Sheriff’s Office requested that Highway 22 be closed eastbound from Stayton to Santiam Junction to allow evacuees and fire personnel clear passage.

“We are ramping up our closure to ensure folks stay clear of the area during the next 72 hours,” said Willamette Forest Supervisor David Warnack Monday. “We plan to shrink the closure as appropriate, once we see how the fire behaves with anticipated high wind gusts during these next few days.”

In Sweet Home, winds began picking up in the early evening and by 6 p.m. firefighters were kept busy responding to downed wires around town, while multiple trees were reported fallen around town, some on power lines. One of the first fell across Main Street near 48th Avenue. The roadway was cleared by passersby.

As of press time for The New Era on Tuesday morning, newspaper staff had noted nearly 20 downed wire reports and 18 reports of pole fires and ground fires as a result of the storm.

“The fire weather forecasted is extremely rare and occurs only a few times a century,” said Eric Johnson, Deputy Fire Staff for Northwest Oregon Fire Management. “Any new fires will prove challenging to suppress, so please help firefighters by not doing activities that could create sparks.”

Fire officials are warning motorists to their hot vehicles away from dry grass, make sure chains aren’t dragging and causing sparks and never throw flammable materials out the window. Fire officials note that the devastating Eagle Creek Fire of 2017 was caused by a single, legal firework.

For a list of personal use restrictions and fire closure orders, visit or follow the Willamette National Forest on Facebook and Twitter @WillametteNF.