Sept. 1, 2020 — This past Sunday (Aug. 30) afternoon, Oregon Department of Forestry (ODF) firefighters, along with Lane County Sheriff’s Office (LCSO), Western Lane Ambulance and firefighters from Mapleton, Swisshome/Deadwood and Siuslaw Valley Fire and Rescue, responded to reports of multiple wildfires along a three-mile stretch of Sweet Creek Road near Mapleton. As of today, fire crews remain engaged with what has been named the Sweet Creek Milepost 2 Fire.
Initially reported as a number of separate fires, the blaze merged into a single 500-acre wildfire near Hadsell Creek Road, prompting multiple levels of evacuation notices for area residents.
Sunday evening, LCSO issued a Level 3 (Go immediately) evacuation for residents of Hadsell Creek Road, and a Level 2 (Get Set – Be ready to leave) evacuation orders for other Sweet Creek Road residents. By evening, several homes in the Hadsell Creek area had been evacuated, displacing a number of families. Temporary housing was made available by the Red Cross.
By Monday evening, A Level 1 evacuation notice had also been issued for Bernhardt Creek Road and Duncan Island Road due to the fire danger.
As of Tuesday morning, the fire remained 0 percent contained but fire crews providing structural protection to the 138 homes in the area had reported no losses.
“Residents should be aware of the danger that exists in their area and monitor emergency services websites and local media for information,” ODF said in a statement issued Monday. “This is the time for preparation and precautionary movement of people with disabilities or for large animals and other special circumstances. If conditions worsen, emergency personnel may contact residents in those areas with additional information.”
During the first day of operations, eight aircraft from as far away as Prineville and Roseburg, along with more than half a dozen fire engines, were working to contain the blaze as it swept up the northern face of the hillside along Sweet Creek Road across from Highway 126, approximately 12 miles east of Florence and across the Siuslaw River from Mapleton. The fire eventually peaked the hill and began spreading down the south side, sending up enormous plumes of smoke and soot that were visible from Florence.
Two helicopters, two airtankers and two single-engine airtankers were engaged on the fire into early evening before darkness forced air support to be grounded for the night. Fire crews are currently camped at the Mapleton High School football field, where they will likely remain for several days as the fire continues burning uphill and away from Mapleton.
By Monday night, a total of 417 fire crews, primarily from the ODF, with structural support provided by teams from Swisshome/Deadwood Fire, Mapleton Fire and Siuslaw Valley Fire and Rescue, were working to contain the blaze. Air support grew to include 10 aircraft, with 12 fire engines, nine bulldozers and six water tenders. At 6 p.m. that evening, ODF’s Incident Management Team 1, led by Incident Commander Joe Hessel, assumed command and will continue to oversee active administration.
“Overnight, firefighters completed hand lines around the perimeter of all burned areas,” said Hessel, adding that the fire is now fully lined. “They also continued putting in hose lays to bring water to the fire.”
That same day, at the request of the LCSO, the Oregon State Marine Board issued a closure to all recreational boating on the Siuslaw River between the Highway 126 Bridge in Mapleton downstream to Tiernan Landing. The temporary closure is in effect through Sept. 13.
Speaking at a briefing Tuesday morning, ODF Operations Section Chief Mike Carlson told crews that, “Today’s goals are to hold and continue to secure lines” as they continue securing fire lines by putting in hose lays to cool hot spots and flare-ups along the perimeter. “They will also remain alert to any spots across the lines.”
In addition, heavy equipment is being used to strengthen lines and open roads to allow easier access for firefighters as aircraft make water drops on hot spots not accessible to ground crews.
While progress has been made, a change in the weather pattern across Oregon is expected to bring higher temperatures, lower relative humidity and the potential for gusty winds — conditions which, combined with the extremely dry vegetation, will test fire lines over the next few days.
Adding to the challenge facing firefighters is the area’s steep terrain, increasing the likelihood of quickly spreading fires should flare-ups occur.
The cause of the fires is suspected to be arson. While speculation on social media included everything from ANTIFA to BLM and other extremist groups, officials have confirmed it was not the work of extremists but likely due to an individual. Early reports of a white, 4-door Honda seen in the area where fires began were investigated by the LCSO.
“While there was a white vehicle of interest early on, that vehicle was located was no longer of interest in our investigation,” said LCSO Sergeant Carrie Carver on Monday.
But by Tuesday afternoon, law enforcement announced an arrest.
Lane County Sheriff’s Office Detectives and Oregon State Police Detectives, working in collaboration, arrested 44-year-old Elias Newton Pendergrass of Mapleton shortly after 3 p.m. Tuesday, booking him for Arson in the first degree in connection with the Sweet Creek Fires.
Many community members and groups have reached out to provide food and water to fire crews. But Hassel said, while deeply appreciative of the community’s kindness, “Best management practices include proper distancing and minimizing our physical interactions within the community. To maintain these standards, [we] can no longer accept donations of food or other supplies from the community. But we appreciate your generosity and understanding.”
For residents displaced by the fires due to evacuations, the Red Cross is providing accommodations for those affected by the fire. To make emergency arrangements, call 888-680-1455.
For the latest evacuation information, visit https://www.lanecounty.org/news/sweetcreekfires.
On Monday, ODF started a dedicated Facebook with further information. Read more at https://www.facebook.com/sweetcreekmp2fire/.