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High winds to pose severe wildfire risk in Pacific Northwest

This photo provided by the Washington State Department of Transportation shows smoke from a wildfire burning south of Lind, Wash. on Thursday, Aug. 4, 2022.
Washington State Department of Transportation
This photo provided by the Washington State Department of Transportation shows smoke from a wildfire burning south of Lind, Wash. on Thursday, Aug. 4, 2022.

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Forecasters warned Thursday that strong, gusting winds and low humidity will cause extreme fire danger across western Oregon and Washington this weekend as authorities pleaded with residents to be aware of the dangers following an unseasonably hot and dry summer.

Starting Friday, a dry east wind with gusts of up to 50 mph (80 kph) will be accompanied by low humidity, setting up a situation ripe for fire danger, the National Weather Service said.

Gov. Kate Brown in a media briefing Thursday encouraged Oregonians to continue to be prepared, have a plan in place and to do anything they can to prevent human-caused fires.

“Each one of us can make a difference over the next 48 to 72 hours,” she said. “Our goal here of course is to make sure that we save lives and protect property.”

Travis Medema, chief deputy state fire marshal, said the predicted combination of dry winds, low relative humidity and an unstable atmosphere could lead to explosive fire growth.

“We are at a critical point in the 2022 fire season in terms of fuels and weather,” he said. “Any new starts that occur could be very problematic.”

Areas from the Columbia River Gorge south to Douglas County in western Oregon are most at risk from the forecasted east winds, he said. Fire crews have been sent to those areas in an effort to quickly respond to any fires that spark.

Meanwhile, Pacific Power notified about 12,000 customers in Linn, Douglas, Lincoln, Tillamook, Marion and Polk counties that their power would be shut off shortly after midnight Friday to prevent fire starts from snagging or broken power lines. The utility’s advanced weather modeling indicates a potential for dangerous fire weather conditions, Pacific Power’s meteorology manager Steve Vanderburg said.

Portland General Electric officials will also likely shut off power in 10 areas because of the risk of fire, impacting about 30,000 customers, according to a news release. The utility will closely monitor conditions and the forecast and will give four hours of notice before turning off power, it said.

Cities and towns across the region, including the oceanfront city of Seaside, also instituted burn bans in anticipation of the fire danger that included beach bonfires and camping fires.

The impending weather was reminiscent of severe winds that hit over Labor Day weekend in 2020, fueling Oregon wildfires that burned more than 1 million acres (405,000 hectares), destroyed 4,000 homes and killed at least 11 people across the western part of the state.

This weekend's winds were not expected to approach the speed and intensity of those in 2020, but forecasters said there was still a chance of “rapid fire spread” on both new fire starts and on fires already burning in Oregon and in Washington state.

Fire weather watches and red flag warnings have been forecast for much of western Oregon and Washington starting Friday.

Officials with the Department of Natural Resources in Washington state also said the expected east wind event, paired with already-critical fire weather conditions, could result in severe wildfire activity including in western Washington.

“West of the Cascades, this will likely be the highest fire danger of the season as hot, dry winds leave normally damp fuels such as grass & moss ready to burn and primed for rapid spread,” state DNR officials said on Twitter.

“It’s important to remember that we’re all in this together,” Washington Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz said. “Practicing good prevention habits keeps our skies clear and our firefighters safe.”

A number of blazes are burning in Oregon. The largest is the Double Creek Fire burning in northeastern Oregon near the Idaho border. The fire grew by nearly 47 square miles (122 square kilometers) Wednesday because of wind gusts up to 50 mph (80 kph) and as of Thursday had burned a total of nearly 158 square miles (409 square kilometers). It's threatening about 100 homes near the community of Imnaha.

The Van Meter Fire, which started Wednesday, is burning on Stukel Mountain about 13 miles (21 kilometers) southeast of Klamath Falls. One home and four structures have been destroyed and about 260 structures are threatened by that blaze, Medema said on Thursday.

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