Oregon utilities shut down power to tens of thousands of customers on Friday as dry easterly winds swept into the region in the hopes that it would lessen the risk of wildfires in extremely dry and hot conditions.
Power shut-offs due to extreme fire weather, common in California, are relatively new to the Pacific Northwest. The plans, which were part of permanent rules approved in May to manage wildfire danger in high-risk areas, mark the new reality in a region better known for its rain and temperate rainforests.
Portland General Electric halted power to about 30,000 customers in 12 service areas — including the posh West Hills neighborhood of Portland — and Pacific Power shut down service to more than 7,000 customers in a small community on the Pacific Coast, where a wildfire burned two years ago, and in pockets southeast of the state capitol of Salem.
Schools in the areas with planned power outages canceled classes and authorities urged residents to charge cellphones and be ready to evacuate at a moment’s notice.
The winds were whipping up a wildfire southeast of Eugene, Oregon, that had been burning in the wilderness for a month but was now making a run toward the small community of Oakridge, where residents were ordered to evacuate. Gov. Kate Brown declared a fire emergency late Friday for the Cedar Creek Fire as it encroached on the 3,200-person town.
Climate change is bringing drier conditions to the Pacific Northwest and that requires strategies that have been common in fire-prone California for the past decade or more, said Erica Fleishman, director of the Oregon Climate Change Research Institute at Oregon State University.
Wind patterns haven’t changed, but those winds are now coinciding more frequently with drier vegetation and hotter temperatures — a toxic mix for fire ignition, rapid spread and extreme fire behavior, she said.
“I don’t know whether this is the solution, but it’s an interim effort to manage wildfire risk,” Fleishman said. “People are going, ‘Oh my gosh!’ The areas we thought were safe, they’re realizing those are not immune to fire anymore. The fire likelihood is changing.”
The proactive power shutoffs were just the second for Portland General Electric ever. The utility shut down power to 5,000 customers in 2020 near Mount Hood during firestorms that ravaged the state. Extreme winds over Labor Day weekend led to wildfires that burned more than 1 million acres, destroyed 4,000 homes and killed at least 11 people — and utilities were blamed for some of those fire starts.
Pacific Power, another major utility in Oregon, said the shutoffs Friday were the first the company has ever done. The company put a wildfire mitigation plan in place in Oregon in 2018 that includes studying wind and weather patterns to predict high-risk areas.
The utility was sued last year by residents in two towns that burned to ashes in the 2020 wildfires who blamed the company for not shutting down power in advance of the devastating wind storm.
Pacific Power has since hired a team of meteorologists to make fire weather forecasts and is spending more than $500 million to “harden” its electric grid in high-risk areas by replacing wooden poles with carbonized ones and encasing power lines and conductor boxes to reduce the chances of a spark, said Drew Hanson, a Pacific Power spokesman.
“You can look at the West in general and climate change has impacted areas from Southern California, and then Northern California and now up into this region as well, we’re seeing those same conditions,” he said.
“It’s something we are taking very seriously. We realize the changing landscape. We’ve been changing and evolving along with it.”
A number of blazes are burning in Oregon and Washington state.
Just south of Salem, firefighters using at least two planes and a helicopter tried to douse the flames of a wildfire that spread from grass to stands of trees, blanketing parts of the Willamette Valley in smoke.
The largest in Oregon is the Double Creek Fire burning in northeastern Oregon near the Idaho border. The fire grew by nearly 47 square miles Wednesday because of wind gusts up to 50 mph (80 kph) and as of Friday had burned a total of nearly 214 square miles. It’s threatening about 100 homes near the community of Imnaha.
In Central Oregon, the Cedar Creek Fire east of Oakridge has burned nearly 52 square miles. On Friday, officials ordered a level 3 “go now” evacuation for residents of greater Oakridge, Westfir and High Prairie areas due to increased fire activity.
The Van Meter Fire, which started Wednesday, is burning on Stukel Mountain about 13 miles southeast of Klamath Falls. One home and four structures have been destroyed and about 260 structures are threatened by that blaze, officials said.
The Rum Creek Fire was also burning in southwest Oregon and was almost halfway contained at about 33 square miles.