On Saturday, Sept. 6, the National Weather Service issued a “Red Flag” warning for much of western Oregon.
Extremely dry fuels, high temperatures and low relative humidities are always a cause for concern in the summer months. But this warning included potentially dangerous winds out of the east.
East winds? On Labor Day Weekend? Those are historically reserved for October, commonly referred to as “chinook winds.”
Those east winds arrived, as predicted. Only four days later, a vast portion of the western Oregon landscape was changed — likely for decades.
In the early morning hours of Tuesday, Sept. 8, firefighters responded to a grass fire on the north side of the North Umpqua River near Glide.
Crews from the Douglas Forest Protective Association, with the assistance of helicopter support and bulldozers, were working to slow the growth of the French Creek Fire. By mid-morning, air support was called further east as two separate fires near Susan Creek and Steamboat were rapidly growing in size.
Then known as the Star Mountain and Archie Creek fires, the two quickly merged together, fueled by continuing strong winds blowing from the east down the North Umpqua River corridor.
Early that Tuesday afternoon, a smoke plume similar to a volcanic eruption rose into the sky 20 miles east of Glide. Within an hour, the entire Umpqua Valley Basin was cloaked in a layer of smoke.
Day quickly turned to night.
By 3 p.m., burning leaves and other debris were falling in neighboring communities. The entirety of the Glide and Idleyld Park communities were under a full Level 3 “Go!” evacuation order.
Many residents fled, while others stayed to defend their homes, their property, their livestock, their livelihoods.
Only 12 hours later, the Archie Creek Fire had consumed an estimated 72,000 acres. By comparison, the 2013 Douglas Complex fires in southern Douglas County burned 68,000-plus acres over the course of a month.
“It was unprecedented in its scope and ferocity,” said Mark Turney of the Umpqua National Forest.
The intensity of the east winds was strong enough to carry burning embers around the western edge of Mount Scott and into the upper Calapooya Creek drainage, forcing more evacuations east of Sutherlin.
By late night that Tuesday, the Archie Creek Fire had burned nearly 100,000 acres.
Archie is the largest wildfire on record in Douglas County, topping out at 131,542 acres.
A total of 109 homes were lost in the blaze, most of which were in the Highway 138 East corridor and along Rock Creek Road. Also lost were the Rock Creek Fish Hatchery, a DFPA fire lookout on Mount Scott, and the DFPA guard station just east of Swiftwater Park.
A soil burn severity report was released this past Wednesday, showing that 77% of the fire burned at moderate or high intensity:
• A moderate burn severity means that up to 80% of the ground cover was damaged, but that the structure of the ground soil would generally remain unchanged.
• High burn severity means that all or nearly all ground cover and organic matter (litter, duff and fine roots) is consumed, with white or gray ash several centimeters deep.
More than 43,000 acres (33% of the fire’s total area) were classified as a high severity burn area, meaning tree root systems were compromised. Although foresters have worked tirelessly for weeks removing potentially hazardous trees near roadways throughout Archie’s path, the risk of falling trees and landslides is expected to persist throughout the winter.
Despite the carnage of the Archie Creek Fire, the only life lost was that of an equipment operator who was awaiting his day’s assignment. With the speed at which Archie moved, all residents were able to evacuate safely. Other western Oregon residents weren’t as lucky.
In all, more than 1.2 million acres have burned throughout Oregon during the 2020 fire season, more than double the 10-year average of 550,000 acres, according to the Oregon Department of Forestry.