Wildfires burn in Lincoln County

Smoke from wildfires in eastern Oregon swept into Lincoln County Monday night and Tuesday, making a phantom silhouette of the Yaquina Bay Bridge in the pale orange haze. (Photo courtesy Mark Farley)

Winds bring smoke from the east and stoke local conflagrations

LINCOLN COUNTY — Rare, near-gale-force winds from the east led to snarled roads, power and communications and helped spark multiple fires in Lincoln County, as they swept the coast in an eerie pallor.

It was a red dawn on the Oregon coast Tuesday, as smoke and ash from fires inland was carried west by strong easterly winds, causing a pale, ember-like glow in the morning sky and the smell of campfire to permeate the hazy air. Winds, sustained as high as 30 mph and gusting up to 45 mph at Newport airport, downed hundreds of trees and power lines throughout Lincoln County — power was out for thousands of customers and internet service was disrupted countywide. Local radio stations crackled with static.

On Saturday, the National Weather Service issued a Fire Weather Watch and Red Flag Warning for the north Oregon coast. It’s rare for the Storm Prediction Center to issued such a warning of “extremely critical” fire danger for the area — the last time was in August 2006. Dry, hot air from central Oregon, carrying thick smoke from the Lionshead and Beachie Creek fires, created a rare phenomenon similar to California’s feared Santa Ana winds — ideal conditions for the rapid spread of wildland fires.

A fire on Highway 34 about 4 miles east of Waldport, possibly started by a downed power line at about 1 a.m. Tuesday, was contained by 4 a.m. Evacuation notices were issued for two fires in north Lincoln County, now collectively referred to by the Oregon Department of Forestry as the Echo Mountain Complex, off of Highway 18 between Otis and Rose Lodge. The Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office issued Level 3 “go now” evacuation notices for more than a dozen thoroughfares and residential streets, with fire threatening an estimated 400 to 500 structures, as the complex moved north Tuesday afternoon.  A temporary evacuation point was established at Chinook Winds Casino Resort in Lincoln City.

As of the News-Times’ deadline, the forestry department had not yet reported the official acreage for the complex, which includes separate fires at Kimberling and Echo mountains, but unofficial estimates put the former at 123 acres and the latter at 46 acres. Sheriff Curtis Landers and Emergency Manager Jenny Demaris told the Lincoln County Board of Commissioners during its Tuesday afternoon meeting that evacuations were going smoothly, with many evacuees sheltering with family and friends, and the Red Cross working to provide lodging vouchers for other displaced residents.

Most of Lincoln City was without power on Tuesday, with Pacific Power’s main transmission line from the Willamette Valley damaged by winds. Crews were unable to access the damaged area as of Tuesday afternoon, as it is located in the vicinity of the Echo Mountain complex, according to company spokesperson Tom Gauntt. Crews were working to repair locally damaged lines fed by the main transmission route.

Central Lincoln PUD Public Affairs Manager Chris Chandler said 5,000 of the non-profit utility’s meters were out at the peak of the event, and 817 remained out as of 5:30 p.m. Tuesday (that includes customers from Lincoln Beach to Reedsport). Crews began working downed lines at about 9:30 p.m. Monday and continued throughout the day Tuesday. Chandler said customers who did not have power restored by 10 p.m. Tuesday might have to wait until Wednesday or Thursday, as crews need time to rest to safely continue repair work.

The complete closure of Highway 101 just north of Cape Foulweather, lasting several hours due to multiple fallen trees in the roadway, also hampered Central’s ability to send equipment and personnel to affected areas, Chandler said. She noted that this was the first real wind event in months — and a rare easterly event, at that — and as such was the first opportunity for dead or compromised trees and limbs to fall asunder.

Timber crashed into cars, houses, fences and onto roads throughout the county, and emergency services responded to dozens of downed power line calls from Monday evening into Tuesday morning. Multiple unconfirmed reports indicate a main fiber optic line was taken out by the wind, crippling internet connectivity and hindering the ability of officials and utilities alike to communicate emergency bulletins to the public. Lincoln County’s website is down — emergency management is regularly posting updates on Facebook.

Tyler Kranz, forecast meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Portland, said extreme atmospheric imbalance brought the dangerous conditions to the coast. “The windstorms were basically caused by a really tight pressure gradient,” Kranz said. “That is, west of the Cascade Mountains, we had low pressure, and east of the Cascade Mountains, we had high pressure, and the difference in pressure was quite extreme, in this case, which is what helped lead to these really gusty winds that are still ongoing. Then, when you combine high winds like this with such a dry air mass, like the one we have over us right now, you then create critical fire weather conditions, as well.” He said winds were expected to pick back up Tuesday night and continue with less severity into Wednesday, maintaining the hazy orange pallor at least another day.

Lincoln County Public Health warned that local air quality was extremely poor, and urged the public to stay indoors when possible. The Oregon Department of Transportation also cautioned that the smoke could create dangerous driving conditions due to low visibility, as well as road hazards like downed limbs and power lines.

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