ESTACADA, Ore. — Kyle Nichols worried about floods, and maybe an earthquake, on his rural homestead in Clackamas County east of Portland, where he lives with his wife and twin 3-year-old daughters.
But in this part of the state, where rains drench the forest and lowlands for much of the year, fire did not seem to be much of a threat.
Then Monday evening, just as he crawled into bed, a neighbor drove by honking and yelling for everyone to evacuate.
Nichols looked outside. Across a nearby field, he saw a wall of flames burning in timber — and headed his way. He scrambled to get his family in their truck and drove to safety. He did not stay away for long. Later that night, Nichols and other neighbors returned to join with county engine crews in a largely successful battle to save their homes. This struggle on Dowty Road, north of Estacada, would be repeated again and again as this week’s fierce winds whipped up embers into new fires.
“We’ve been running around for the last three days with buckets and pumps and hoses and doing everything we can to put out spot fires,” Nichols said Thursday, a day that brought reduced winds and renewed hope that the homes still standing could be protected.
The burn zone on Dowty Road, which includes two houses reduced to rubble, is one tiny edge of epic conflagrations that have redefined fire risks in the Pacific Northwest. The fires are raging across Washington and hit even harder in Oregon, where the death toll still is uncertain and hundreds of homes have been destroyed amid widespread evacuations that have put more than 40,000 people under notice to leave their residences..
Oregon Gov. Kate Brown told reporters this week may have wrought the greatest loss of life and property in the state’s history. Nearly 900,000 acres have burned.
Communities that have suffered some of the most severe fire damage include Detroit and Blue River in the Cascades, and Talent and Phoenix in southwest Oregon. Fires also have upended Clackamas County, which extends from the Cascade Mountains to the eastern edge of the Portland area. So far, more than 200 structures have been lost to fire.
On Thursday, amid thick smoke that lay like fog across the landscape, the continued fire threat triggered Level 2 evacuation notices — urging people to be ready to leave on short notice — in larger communities east of Portland that included Oregon City, Canby and Sandy.
Fires moved quickly
Earlier this week, fierce east winds pushed some of the biggest and most destructive fires through heavily timbered mountain valleys on the west side of the state.
One glimpse of the tremendous speed of the fires’ expansion can be gleaned from a report on the Beachie Creek fire in the Cascades east of Salem.
The Beachie Creek fire was originally listed at 469 acres but grew overnight Monday to 131,000 acres. Wildland firefighters were forced to evacuate their encampment. This fire has threatened communities along a 30-mile stretch of Santiam Canyon — all of which are under a Level 3 evacuation notice to leave, and was made worse by a series of small fires caused by downed power lines.
The fire’s quick spread created a late-night, life-threatening situation in Detroit, Oregon, and the town’s mayor, Jim Trett, in a Thursday interview with Oregon Public Broadcasting described harrowing evacuations for many residents that involved driving down roads with flames on both sides.
Stefan Myers, a public information officer, said much of the effort in recent days has been focused on saving lives. That has involved clearing downed trees and other debris so that people trapped by the fire can evacuate.
Myers said earlier Thursday that fire crews had not yet had time to tally the number of buildings destroyed, and there has been no determination of deaths.
Neighbors battle hot spots
On Dowty Road, the wind acted like a bellows to revive the fire again and again. After dying down Tuesday morning, the fire later that day flared up, singeing the greens of a nearby golf course, and jumping into a hardwood forest full of alder, oak and cottonwood.
County fire engines, aided by a half-dozen neighbors, were able to knock back the flames that burned one homeowner’s porch and save the house.
Katie Gallegos, one of Nichols’ neighbors, lost a pasture to the fire. She credits the county fire engines and the neighborhood crew, which included her husband, Luis, with saving their house, from which they operate a dog-boarding business.
“The fire department did an amazing job, but in addition I am so thankful of the neighbors coming together to protect our property,” Gallegos said.
On Thursday, Nichols and a friend, Cody Johnson, searched the burnt timber for hot spots. They moved cautiously past blackened, hollowed trees, some leaning precariously against others. They carried buckets of water and doused one small blaze that picked up in the afternoon.
“If this could happen here, it could anywhere,” Nichols said.