Smoke and fire cause concern, confusion, rumors

Western Lane County responds to area fires

Sept. 12, 2020 — The recent extreme fire events throughout California and the Pacific Northwest are dramatically impacting the lives of residents in Florence. Drifting banks of smoke and toxic particulates have darkened local skies since Monday, finally lessening later in the week as Pacific winds began moving the massive clouds of smoke away from the area.

There has also been a series of smaller fires responded to by Siuslaw Valley Fire and Rescue (SVFR), raising concern among residents and sparking unfounded rumors on social media that arsonists were at work in the area.

“These are certainly unusual times, and everyone is extremely on edge right now, including our firefighters. We are reasonably certain that the Sweet Creek fire was intentionally set but none of our other recent fires were considered to be suspicious,” said SVFR Chief Michael Schick. “We had two dumpster fires occur about the same time the other day but, geographically, they were very far apart and neither is believed to be arson.”

Schick explained that dumpster fires are most often due to the improper disposal of materials — car ash trays, cigarette butts, cleaning solutions, small batteries — making it extremely important for people to be cautious when disposing of dry materials or anything else that could potentially start a fire.

“For example, be very cautious when dumping ashes from a barbecue. They may seem to be cool, but it only takes one hidden ember to be exposed to a little breeze to start it actively burning again,” said Schick.

In fact on Friday, Lane County Waste Management announced that it had temporarily closed seven of its waste transfer stations through the weekend due to hazardous air conditions, including the Swisshome transfer station. Florence remains open as of press time Friday.

Another problematic situation has been the dryness of the air, as well as grass and brush.

“We are still responding to multiple calls each day for individuals using chain saws or with small fires in their yard. Anything that can produce a spark is not allowed during these extreme fire conditions,” warned Schick. “This is only a very small percentage of our citizens acting dangerously. For the most part, our neighbors act responsibly but it only takes one fire associated with strong, hot winds to start a conflagration.”

Some of the other causes of fires in the area are related to the high winds and unseasonably warm temperatures the Siuslaw region — and the Pacific Northwest in general — are currently undergoing.

“Recently we have seen many power lines arcing in the trees when the wind is blowing. So far, there haven’t been any large fires resulting from these arcing power lines — but we have had a few smaller fires which only require a change in our current weather conditions to become a very large fire,” Schick said. “We experienced an atypical weather pattern on Monday evening with strong, dry, hot winds which is the one thing that concerns us the most. Those are the types of conditions that encourage rapid fire growth and that is why we have been seeing these fires around Oregon grow very rapidly.”

Schick also reported strong east winds were lined up with multiple major fires to the east, bringing smoke and ash into the area. Along with the sudden influx of smoke and ash, Florence’s 911 dispatch center began to receive multiple calls from citizens who smelled and saw the smoke and reported fires in Florence.

Schick said SVFR takes all of these calls seriously and sent resources to check on each reported fire.

Fortunately, all of those reports turned out to be unfounded. 

Schick also clarified the situation surrounding the recent Sweet Creek fire.

“We were fortunate not to have these kinds of temperatures and winds during the Sweet Creek fire. With that fire, it was the terrain that made firefighting exceptionally difficult and dangerous,” Schick said. “Having multiple aircraft available to place fire retardant and water around the perimeter really slowed fire spread down so that hand crews could safely work on the fire line.”

He added that with the current strain on firefighting resources around Oregon and the rest of the Western U.S., the Siuslaw region may not be able to receive the same kind of air support that it did two weeks ago should another large fire break out in our area.

“If we did have a fire, our very well-trained local firefighters, including personnel from the Oregon Department of Forestry who are stationed in this area, would initiate a fire attack while requesting additional resources from around the state,” Schick explained. “We saw a great example of that with the Sweet Creek fire. Units from SVFR joined with firefighters from the Mapleton and Swisshome/ Deadwood fire departments along with ODF firefighters to begin fire suppression efforts.”

This week’s extreme smoke conditions raised the very real possibility that residents might wish to — or be required to — evacuate the area.

Schick clarified the process that would be involved in that type of decision.

“We received many calls this week concerning where people would evacuate to if requested, and how they would be notified. That would be a situation in which we would be working very closely with Lane County Emergency Management and the City of Florence in determining where the safest place would be for people to evacuate to,” Schick said. “Notification would be done by reverse 911 calls in which all land lines in a specific area would receive a message with evacuation instructions.”

Additionally, text messages and emails from Lane County would also be sent to those who have signed up for emergency alerts.

Residents are encouraged to go to the Lane County Emergency Management web page to sign up for notifications and further information.

Schick also added another reason to be aware of and prepared in the event of an evacuation order.

“Law enforcement and fire personnel would go door to door making sure everyone has left the area,” said Schick. “If we can be certain that people have evacuated, then firefighters can concentrate on the main concern — fighting the fire.”