Lionshead fire

The Lionshead Fire is among many dangerous wildfires burning in Oregon this week. 

Wind-driven wildfires turned daytime skies orange Tuesday across the Willamette Valley, closed a portion of Interstate 5 in Southern Oregon, left thousands without power and led to the evacuation of residents from homes and inmates from state prisons.

The large number of fires breaking out across the state is a "once in a generation event," which will last for at least another two days, Gov. Kate Brown said Tuesday.

Brown declared a conflagration emergency on Tuesday due to rapidly spreading wildfires. She said thousands of people had been ordered to evacuate in the swiftly changing situation.

"Get the hell out," Brown said, quoting a comment about evacuation orders by Sen. Herman Baertschiger, Jr., R-Grants Pass.

The Santiam Fire had burned 131,000 acres and is moving west toward the Salem area. The Holiday Farm Fire in Lane County closed Highway 126 between Springfield and Bend. Fire officials said both blazes started on the east side of the Cascades and jumped the ridges to the west.  

The scope of the fires was presented late Tuesday in a press conference that included state fire, emergency management and public health officials. About 3,000 firefighters are involved from around the state, with the focus Tuesday on evacuations. 

The rapidly expanding map of fires included Lincoln, Washington, Klamath, Lane and Clackamas counties, according to said Doug Grafe of the Oregon Department of Forestry.  A 2,000 acre-fire near Chiloquin in Klamath County closed U.S. Highway 97. In the late afternoon, two fires were reported in the Medford area. 

Officials said there had been no loss of life that they knew of. Fires have destroyed structures in Mill City in Marion County and other areas.

"We know our losses are going to be great," Brown said. 

State officials were working on evacuation plans and shelters that will take into account the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Winds that topped 50 miles per hour in valleys west of the Cascades on Monday pushed fires rapidly west. The winds topped 30 mph on Tuesday, with occasional gusts of 40 mph. Winds are expected to drop to less than 15 mph on Wednesday.

“Thursday is really our turning point to go on the offensive," Grafe said.

Grafe said the fires were stoked by the driest conditions and the largest amount of underbrush and other fuel in three decades.

In addition to winds from the east, winds from the north will take hold on Wednesday, pushing smoke from fires south.

Brown said there are initial reports that some of the fires may have been caused by downed power lines. She promised an investigation into the causes of the fires after the emergency is over.

The Oregon Department of Corrections evacuated 1,450 inmates from three Salem-area facilities due to the fire danger. The inmates from the Oregon State Correctional Institution, Santiam Correctional Institution, and Mill Creek Correctional Facility were moved to the Oregon State Penitentiary. No inmates were released from custody, officials said.

Smoke was reported as far west as U.S. Highway 101 on the Oregon Coast. Much of the Willamette Valley was under a heavy cloak of smoke, with ash falling on homes and cars.

The Oregon National Guard was operating four UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters out of Madras to drop fire retardant. Six of the state's largest firefighting helicopters, the CH-47 Chinook, are not available because they have been deployed to Afghanistan at the request of the Department of Defense to aid in military missions. The National Guard was activating three 125-soldier firefighting teams to be deployed as needed.

The Oregon National Guard is operating a total of seven helicopters supporting fire fighting efforts. Six HH-60M Black Hawks, five outfitted with Bambi buckets to support water drops and one to support search and rescue operations. A UH-72 Lakota with infrared radar is being used to aid in fire mapping.

Fairgrounds in Marion, Polk and Lane counties were opened for evacuated livestock.

High winds caused power outages in the Crater Lake National Park area.

Nationwide, 15 new large fires were reported Monday bringing the national total to 87 large fires that have burned more than 2.7 million acres, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. An update on Tuesday's new fires would be posted Wednesday, according to the agency.

Officials said Oregon residents should monitor the mass emergency notification systems of their local law enforcement and fire agencies. Most offer alerts via cell phone.

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