Traffic jams are a sure bet — and fire and smoky skies are a wild card for those headed south to Oregon’s zone of totality for the Aug. 21 eclipse.
A corridor that runs from the Oregon Coast to the Idaho border is prime real estate for those seeking clear skies to experience the Aug. 21 solar eclipse.
This zone of totality — more than 60 miles wide — also is fire country that has been baking through intense summer heat. As of Saturday, at least four significant blazes were burning in or close to the zone, and overnight lightning ignited more in advance of cooler weather.
All of this makes fire and smoky skies a serious wild card as Oregon prepares for the massive in-migration of eclipse watchers. Oregon officials estimate that as many as 1 million people could converge on the state, creating record traffic jams and vastly complicating responses to fires or any other emergencies.
• Arrive early and stay late for the Aug. 21 eclipse. Oregon and Washington state transportation officials advise against trying to make it a one-day trip.
• Bring food, water and an emergency kit, and arrive in the zone with a full tank of gas.
• Don’t park on highway shoulders during the eclipse, as you will block emergency vehicles.
• Carry a paper map, as cell service may be spotty.
“We are working with all the fire agencies to be strategic about where resources are staged, ” said Nathan Garibay, emergency services manager for Deschutes County in central Oregon. “But please don’t park on roadsides, because that could easily create a situation where there is no place for emergency vehicles to go. And be patient.”
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Garibay also cautions visitors to take care when camping, and to avoid idling their cars in off-road areas where heat from a vehicle could easily start a fire.
One central Oregon fire — Whitewater — has prompted the U.S. Forest Service to close a large portion of trails in the Mount Jefferson Wilderness that was expected to be a prime viewing area for backpackers.
At the Warm Springs Indian Reservation, another place that will draw visitors, fire crews scrambled in recent days to try to contain a fire just north of the zone of totality. The blaze destroyed several structures and threatened 140 homes as it burned through juniper, grass and dense stands of ponderosa pine.
Fire maps Saturday also noted blazes south of Antelope, a town in central Oregon in the zone of totality.
By Saturday, the lightning strikes, along with forecast winds, helped push the region to the highest of five levels that help assign firefighting resources, according to John Saltenberger, fire- weather program manager for the Portland-based Northwest Interagency Coordination Center. This level calls for a national mobilization of resources due to the potential for significant wildfires.
Also Saturday, Gov. Kate Brown — citing the wildfires and eclipse preparation — authorized about 125 Oregon National Guard members to be activated Monday to help with the fires.
Aside from the safety risks of fires, smoke could frustrate those seeking a clear view of the Aug. 21 midmorning eclipse as the moon passes between the sun and the Earth. The sun will go dark about 10:20 a.m., with the eclipse starting on the coast and sweeping east.
In the viewing areas near fires, winds could flush out much of the smoke, but it could still linger in low spots.
“My advice for people would be to avoid valley bottoms ( the morning of the 21st) and be in wide-open areas,” Saltenberger said.
The chance of smoky skies are much lower in Western Oregon. But there’s a greater possibility of morning clouds west of the Cascades, Saltenberger said.
Traffic, toilets, supplies
Both sides of the state will share in the snarled traffic.
Oregon and Washington transportation officials warn people to come early and stay late. Consider the eclipse to be at least a three-day event.
“We have been hearing about the possibility of a lot of people coming down from Puget Sound really early Monday morning of the 21st,” said Don Hamilton, a spokesman for the Oregon Department of Transportation. “They need to plan ahead.”
For many Western Washington motorists, the shortest routes to the zone of totality, where day will turn briefly to night, require them to cross the Columbia River on bridges that already are huge traffic bottlenecks during weekday Portland-area rush hours.
On the morning of the eclipse, traffic could back up for miles through southwest Washington. “We could see a huge rush of people and long delays,” said Bart Treece, a spokesman for the Washington State Department of Transportation.
Motorists are advised to fill their gas tanks outside of the zone of totality, and bring water, food, emergency kits, a shovel and fire extinguisher.
Oregon businesses planning to cater to visitors have been stocking up on supplies, but there are concerns of shortages.
“It’s hard to gear up for something that we haven’t ever been through so it’s kind of a roll of a dice,” said Dawn Stecher, assistant manager at Ericksons Thriftway in Madras, a central Oregon community of less than 7,000 at the center of the totality zone.
With its typically clear skies and picturesque high-desert vistas, Madras is considered one of the nation’s best eclipse-viewing sites.
Madras is bracing for up to 70,000 visitors within a 10-mile area of town. Many will be there for the six-day Oregon Solarfestthat begins Thursday.
Stecher said the Thriftway is stocking up on pop, ice and camping supplies. The biggest problem is perishable food. If too much is ordered, it will spoil and have to be thrown out.
Visitors will find some 600 portable toilets around Madras, serviced during the midnight hours when traffic hopefully will ebb. And medical staff at St. Charles Health System are preparing for patients suffering from dehydration, snake bites and other ailments.
Madras boosters are hoping that by Aug. 21 the fire risks will have eased. And even on Friday, with smoke nearby, there was still good visibility.
“We know that these fires are not all going to be put out (by Aug. 21) but right now, when you look straight up there is blue sky,” said Joe Krenowicz, executive director of the Chamber of Commerce in Madras.
Long-range forecasts more than a week out are often unreliable, and there is no consensus about the weather on eclipse morning.
Portland KGW meteorologist Rod Hill expects a low front to move into Oregon next weekend, and bring cloudy skies even to the central parts of the state.
Saltenberger, with the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center, predicts that the week ahead will bring typical mid-August conditions with moderate temperatures and relatively clear weather that could hold through Aug. 21.
Matthew Cullen, of the National Weather Service in Portland, said there are considerable differences among the models used for long-range forecasts.
“There is absolutely no confidence in a prediction that far out,” Cullen said Friday.