The Oregonian, Portland, Ore.
Lower winds, moderated temperatures and increased humidity are all helping arrest the growth of the Riverside fire and other smaller blazes in Clackamas County, allowing county officials to back off evacuation levels for some areas Monday.
But the 134,575-acre Riverside fire remains an uncontained conflagration that fire crews are only beginning to get a handle on with increased resources that have arrived in recent days.
Meanwhile, the Sheriff’s Office said it was saturating the county with extra patrols with help from other agencies to protect the homes and property of evacuated residents and to keep rogue citizen patrols at bay. They said they were not seeing a big increase in crime from normal levels and again tried to quash baseless rumors of widespread looting and outside groups targeting the county.
Grounds crews are working to strengthen and improve control lines a half mile southeast of Estacada in the Faraday Lake area, and are hoping to hold the fire south of Fall Creek Road near the North Fork Reservoir and Oregon 224. Hotshot crews and engines, meanwhile, are working on hotspots to hold the fire east of Day Hill Road and prevent new growth.
To the west, dozers and hand crews are working to establish control lines in rugged terrain in the Green Mountain and Goat Mountain areas, about five miles southeast of Colton. Crews also continue to make progress on putting in handlines along the southwest side of the fire near Molalla.
More than 400 firefighters are working on the fire, with more expected to arrive this week, said Alan Sinclair, the Southwest Incident Management Team Commander on the fire.
“We’re getting what we need and our crews are engaged,” he said.
The improved weather conditions help but are not going to put the fire out,” he said. “They’re giving us a break to get out there and get those lines established, but this is going to be a long duration incident. There’s a lot of fire out there.”
He said heavy smoke is still preventing the use of manned aircraft, though drones that can detect heat sources are helping firefighters observe and map the fire.
Containment on the Riverside fire remains at 0% but that does not reflect the work being done, he said. Firefighters must put out hot spots around control lines and make sure the lines hold, he said.
“We should start seeing containment in the next few days,” he said. “We’re getting in resources. This is the No. 1 incident in the region.”
The fire has leveled the Dodge Community Church and numerous homes, barns and other structures along the heavily forested Hillockburn Road, off Oregon 211 six miles south of Estacada.
Fire crews and many neighbors have worked to beat down the fire over the past several days since the area was evacuated last Tuesday afternoon. Yet the remains of destroyed homes, barns and other outbuildings dotted either side of the road – in some cases near a neighbor who sustained no damage at all.
Some residents have returned – and a few never left – concerned for livestock they had to leave behind. Many ran generators to power pumps to draw water from their wells, to save freezers packed with food and to run pressure washers over smoldering embers along their property lines.
Neighbors have checked in on each other, sharing stories of sleepless nights listening to police scanners to track the fire’s proximity and days spent texting with other locals for any word on their homes.
Some people who live on Hillockburn said they had run into a few people carrying guns and interrogating anyone they didn’t recognize as a precaution against looters.
Firefighters have made greater progress on three smaller fires in the county, said Capt. Brandon Paxton, a spokesman for Clackamas Fire. But he said people still should stay out of those areas and should not try to help by grabbing axes and shovels and trying to pitch in.
The Wilhoite fire, at 776 acres, and the Unger Road fire, at 378 acres, are 100% lined. The 1,5000-acre Doughty Road fire is 20% lined. More than 300 firefighters are working those fires.
Sheriff Craig Roberts said he has stepped up patrols with backup provided by Oregon State Police, Multnomah and Washington counties Lake Oswego, Oregon City, Canby, Molalla and Milwaukie.
“Our response time are much faster than they normally are, with most calls arriving on scene in under three minutes,” he said.
The FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force was helping vet individual suspects in alleged crimes to determine if they have links to any groups or organizations, Roberts said.
A Clackamas County sheriff’s deputy was placed on administrative leave after a video captured him suggesting that members of antifa were involved in setting fires and that deputies needed the public’s help in stopping them. A sheriff’s captain also said something similar at a public meeting.
Roberts said once again that the information was false. “I want to reiterate that at this point we have no suspects associated with any groups,” he said.
Roberts said there was a slight increase in the number of arrests for trespassing, burglary and theft, but “I wouldn’t say it’s astronomical.”
He said law enforcement had been “having conversations” with armed vigilantes that have been setting up checkpoints and roaming neighborhoods to discourage that activity.
“It’s not allowed,” he said. “If any kind of these activities continue, we’ll move forward with criminal prosecution. There was a lot of concern that we didn’t have a heavy patrol presence out there. I want to reiterate that we do have a heavy presence and we’re addressing any concerns citizens have relatively quickly.”
The Sheriff’s Office has set up four manned security roadblocks in areas of the county affected by the wildfires: South Elwood Road at Oregon 211; South Shibley Road at Oregon 211; Oregon 211 at Oregon 224; and Oregon 224 east of Fall Creek.
No one will be allowed access unless they live within the blocked area, are assisting someone who lives in the area, or has another reasonable explanation for entering, the Sheriff’s Office said.
Roberts also announced two changes in evacuation levels:
Areas south of Oregon City and Canby encompassing some portions of Mulino and Monitor moved from Level 2 (get set to go) to Level 1 (be ready).
Areas east of Oregon City encompassing some portions of Redland, Beaver Creek and Highland, along with areas south of Sandy including some areas of Eagle Creek, Firwood and Wildcat Mountain have been moved from Level 3 (get out) to Level 2.
Officials asked residents to stay out of Level 3 evacuation areas to make sure roads are clear, as increased traffic in the area can inhibit fire response.
There was no word on when evacuated residents of Estacada can return to their homes. Sinclair said that would take place when there are no longer threats from fire or downed power lines.
Sarah Present, the county’s deputy health director, said air quality in the area had improved slightly but is still at hazardous levels. It’s vital to stay inside, she said.
The county had seen a 10 percent increase in emergency room visits due to respiratory problems and identified those 65 years or older, people with diabetes, pregnant women and children as particularly at risk.
©2020 The Oregonian (Portland, Ore.)
Visit The Oregonian (Portland, Ore.) at www.oregonian.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.