Oregon wildfire breaks free and spreads to massive size as Portland is covered in smoke

The blaze more than doubled in size over the weekend as winds picked up

Ethan Freedman
Climate Reporter, New York
Monday 12 September 2022 19:28 BST
Wildfires, record heat strain California's electrical grid

The Cedar Creek Fire in Oregon has ballooned in size over the weekend, spurring new evacuations and worry as the fire broke out of containment.

The blaze, between Eugene and Bend in the eastern half of the state, had burned through more than 86,000 acres as of Monday morning — roughly the same size as Philadelphia — after “extreme fire growth” over the weekend.

Meanwhile, smoke from the wildfire was carried all the way into Portland, the state’s largest city, contributing to dismal air quality.

On Friday, the fire was at just 33,000 acres, with 12 per cent of the perimeter contained. But heavy winds over the next couple of days, combined with dry vegetation on the landscape, helped the wildfire more than double in size and spread beyond containment lines.

Mandatory evacuations are in place for areas surrounding the fire, including the outskirts of Westfir and Oakridge, two small towns in the mountains of the Willamette National Forest. The towns were under evacuation orders over the weekend, but the western edge has been downgraded to an evacuation warning.

Lane County Sheriff Cliff Harrold noted in a video update on Sunday that evacuation warnings can always be re-upped to mandatory orders, and that for some people, staying outside the potential evacuation zone might still be the right call.

Nearly 1,200 people are estimated to live in the mandatory evacuation zones, with another 5,400 people living in areas under evacuation warnings, according to the state.

The fire has been burning since 1 August, sparked by a lightning strike, but has been growing more slowly for most of that time.

Smoke from the fire created hazy skies in Portland and other parts of the state over the weekend. As of Monday, air quality in the Portland metro area is rated as “moderate” on the US Air Quality Index.

The area immediately surrounding the fire has “hazardous” air quality, meaning all people are at serious risk from air pollution. Fire smoke can contribute to respiratory issues like asthma, or other conditions, like heart disease.

More than 90 large fires are currently burning across the US after weeks of intense heatwave out west combined with ongoing drought to spark large blazes.

The Mosquito Fire, which sparked last week in northern California, has reached more than 46,000 acres and remains just 10 per cent contained. There is no official estimate of how many structures have been lost, though KCRA News in Sacramento reports that some homes in the area have burned down.

In northeast Oregon, the Double Creek Fire has burned more than 155,000 acres. Idaho alone has 34 large fires, including the Moose Fire, which has burned more than 125,000 acres.

The US has had an active fire season, with massive blazes in Oregon, California, Arizona, Alaska, New Mexico and elsewhere. Since the start of the year, a combined 6.6 million acres have burned across the country, according to the National Interagency Fire Center, nearly the size of Belgium.

And wildfire risk is likely to increase in the US over the coming decades as the climate crisis brings more heatwaves and droughts that create the hot and dry conditions perfect for sparking fires.

That’s especially true out west, where wide open spaces and ongoing dry conditions have created devastating blazes in recent years.

One recent report found that 800,000 homes in the US west had at least a 26 per cent chance of burning in the next 30 years.

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