Story updated at 10 a.m. on Saturday, Oct. 15 with news of a new wildfire in Oregon Coast Range.
The return of hot and dry east winds to the Pacific Northwest is expected to fuel wildfire growth this weekend in Oregon and Washington, likely bringing unhealthy air quality to the Willamette Valley into next week.
A red flag warning has been issued for Saturday and Sunday due to east winds that could gust up to 30 mph, fueling the growth of the Cedar Creek Fire in Oregon and the Nakia Creek and Siouxon fires in Washington.
A new wildfire was also reported Saturday morning — an 80-acre blaze in Oregon’s Clatsop State Forest northwest of Fishhawk Lake.
“The fire currently is not a threat to the Fishhawk Lake community or other structures,” the Oregon Department of Forestry said in a statement. A type 3 firefighter team is currently being assembled, the agency said.
Although conditions will be ripe for wildfire spread, conditions aren’t expected to be as critical as during early September, when high east winds fueled multiple new wildfires starts and led utilities to shut down power for 50,000 homes and businesses.
Both Pacific Power nor PGE said they were not planning to shut down power to reduce wildfire risk this weekend, although a PGE spokeswoman said the company was “watching closely and have crews and other resources ready to respond, if needed.”
“The good news is that this east wind event won’t be as strong as what we saw in early September,” National Weather Service meteorologist Colby Neuman said. “Our main concern is about the existing wildfires. There’s certainly going to be enhanced activity. We’re just looking at how much they’re going to grow and how much smoke they’re going to put out.”
Meanwhile, an air quality alert is in place across the length of the Willamette Valley, thought Monday, as smoke from the fires could bring the worst air quality of the season, Neuman said.
Nakia Creek and Cedar Creek fires likely to grow
Neuman said the wildfire of greatest concern is the Nakia Creek Fire, covering 56 acres and just east of the Vancouver Metro Area, which is expected to see slightly stronger winds, Neuman said.
“They have a fire line around the it, but the concern is that if it gets really gusty and the fire jumps the line and takes off, there are homes and people that live not that far away,” Neuman said. “That’s our biggest concern right now.”
Oregon’s much larger Cedar Creek Fire, outside of Oakridge, will also see east winds and is expected to grow, but probably to a lesser extent. The main concern there is the amount of smoke the 123,498-acre blaze puts up.
Fire crews on Saturday said that “in anticipation of critical fire danger, firefighters will be focusing efforts in areas that have previously challenged containment lines. Resources will be engaged on the southern tip of the fire to continue holding and securing the areas where fire crossed the line last week,” a report Saturday morning said.
The fire is 40% contained and unlikely to threaten the nearby town of Oakridge the way it did in September, but it will make air quality miserable.
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Declines in air quality
The Cedar Creek Fire has already made air quality unpleasant in Oakridge, Eugene and the South Willamette Valley for at least the past week, but if the blaze gets going, it could put up enough smoke to bring unhealthy air quality across the length of the Willamette Valley, particularly when combined with smoke from the Washington fires.
“In the beginning, the winds should be strong enough that the smoke just gets lofted into a narrow region — probably just Oakridge and Eugene,” Neuman said. “But if the fire does pick up and really smolder, as we get into next week, there’s going to be pretty weak winds so the smoke could just start to settle into the Willamette Valley, mixing with the fog.
“I don’t think the air quality will be as poor as (after the Labor Day Fires in 2020), but it could be as bad as anything we’ve seen yet this year.”
The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality issued an air quality alert in place until 5 p.m. on Monday.
“Forecasted conditions will cause air quality to reach unhealthy levels at times through Monday,” the agency said. “Pollutants in smoke can cause burning eyes, runny nose, aggravate heart and lung diseases, and aggravate other serious health problems. Limit outdoor activities and keep children indoors if it is smoky. Please follow medical advice if you have a heart or lung condition.”
Air quality can be tracked in real time here.
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What happened to October and when will rain come?
A very strong high-pressure ridge has prevented Oregon from getting the normal rain and storms it would typically see this time fo year. This ridge is just off the Pacific Northwest coast and is blocking storms and sending them either north toward Alaska or south toward central California, according to National Weather Service meteorologist David Bishop.
That’s contributed to historically hot and dry weather that has kept wildfires in the Pacific Northwest burning far longer than would normally be the case.
The good news is that the ridge is expected to break down in about a week, Neuman said.
“The only piece of good news is that we’ve got a roughly 70 to 80 percent chance of a pretty big pattern shift coming around Oct. 21 to 23 — about a week from (Friday),” Neuman said. “It would mean quite a lot of rain and basically the start of the rainy season.”
In other words, the Pacific Northwest just has to hold on through another week of crummy air quality before rainy relief arrives.
This story will be updated as more information becomes available.
Zach Urness has been an outdoors reporter in Oregon for 15 years and is host of the Explore Oregon Podcast. Urness is the author of “Best Hikes with Kids: Oregon” and “Hiking Southern Oregon.” He can be reached at zurness@StatesmanJournal.com or (503) 399-6801. Find him on Twitter at @ZachsORoutdoors.