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Estacada fire: Weather helping firefighters working toward containment

Stuart Tomlinson | By Stuart Tomlinson |
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on September 17, 2014 at 12:43 PM
ESTACADA — As additional crews continued to flood the fire camp set up outside Estacada, fire bosses said Wednesday that higher humidity and lower temperatures were making the difference in keeping the 36 Pit fire in check.

 Cooperative weather and the 500-plus firefighters with another 300 on their way allowed the Clackamas County Sheriff's Office to reduce evacuation orders for about 40 homes from level 3 (go!) to level 2 (get ready to leave), said spokesman Sgt. Nate Thompson.

But people who were evacuated earlier from the Silver Fox RV Park must still stay away from their homes, Thompson said.

Oregon 224 will remain closed indefinitely south of town -- perhaps even after firefighters have left the area -- because of landslides, said incident commander Bruce Holloway.

"The fire has gone up there and burned the vegetation off,'' Holloway said. "It loosens boulders, dead trees fall over and they're sliding down on the road. It's not just a few rocks, it's actual landslides."

The latest infrared aerial mapping of the fire puts the acreage at 4,000, up from 3,588 acres, with a portion of that acreage from burnout operations, said Carol Connolly, a spokeswoman for the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center in Portland.

About 7 percent of the fire is contained, fire managers estimated.

"The goal remains to stop the fire's spread on the north and west flanks,'' Connolly said. No structures have burned, but the fire continued to threaten 168 homes on the north and south sides of the Clackamas River, which runs through the heart of the fire near this town of 2,800.

There are four 20-person hot shot crews assigned to the fire, and another seven 20-person crews working to enforce the fire lines on the ground with the help of bulldozers and at least three helicopters dropping water on the fire.

A Red Cross shelter at the First Baptist Church continued to house about 25 people, while some brought their motor homes and parked outside.

Calm winds and higher humidity levels — and an approaching weather front that could bring at least a little beneficial rain -- are expected late Wednesday into Thursday.

Holloway said as humidity levels go up, so does the moisture levels of smaller fuels (about the thickness of a finger), making them harder to burn.

"When that happens, the fire burns with less intensity and firefighters can get closer and build lines close to the fire instead of farther away," Holloway said.

Conversely, Holloway said, burnout operations aren't as effective: "If there is too much humidity, the fuels won't burn."

Fire weather forecasters say the relief will be short-lived: A thermal heat low is forecast to set up over the Oregon coast Friday and expand into the Willamette Valley over the weekend, pushing temperatures up and humidity down.

But forecasters also say the warmup to temperatures in the upper 80s to near 90s will be short-lived and not as strong as the last several blasts of hot weather.

By Sunday, the heat low should be over the Cascades, and cooler marine air returns to the forecast.

-- Stuart Tomlinson