Dry winds keep wildfires going for now, expected to calm Wednesday night

Weather

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) – Right now there are communities in the middle of the day, Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2020, that are dark enough to pass for night as wildfires shroud sections of the Santiam Canyon, Willamette Valley and Oregon Coast with smoke.

The sky is orange or red and the streetlights are glaring in the afternoon haze. The wind picked up Labor Day afternoon and it has been continuing to gust to limits of 30-55 mph for almost 24 hours. That has created an intense atmosphere for wildfires. Below is a photo from Stayton, Oregon, Tuesday around lunchtime.

You can also find a video, from KOIN 6 weekend anchor Wayne Havrelly of the conditions at Lyons, which is off of Highway 22 west of Mill City. The light trying to penetrate this thick layer of smoke is creating this orange hue. Ash is falling on cars throughout Marion County and nearby communities from the wildfires burning overnight.

Below is a satellite image, using a special fire temperature setting, to help display the current wildfires this afternoon. The glowing orange and red are the spots of our current fire activity. The Beachie Creek and Lionshead Fires are responsible for the most northern cluster of orange that you can spot on the satellite image below. Those are the two fires that have threatened the communities off of Highway 22 and based on the weather conditions, will continue to spread. That is the concern for our Tuesday afternoon and evening.

Satellite Imagery – Fire Spotting Tool
Satellite Imagery – Fire Spotting Tool

The current wind near the surface is mostly running out of the northeast around Marion county and locations of the Willamette Valley. The wind pushed 50 mph at the Portland International Airport just before 1 p.m. A High Wind Warning is in place until 7 p.m. for the Cascade Foothills and those communities in the Santiam Canyon. That means the wind is going to remain consistent with fervor.

Weather Conditions Tuesday PM – NWS
SPC MSL Pressure/Surface Wind

FORECAST

Weather models are backing this up for Tuesday evening. Although the wind has reduced for the Columbia Plateau, as temperatures try to recover from the cold rush of air yesterday, they’re still strong west of the Cascades. As long as the wind is blowing out of the east, the relative humidity is going to be very low.

I do not believe this will recover until late Wednesday or more likely into Thursday or Friday. The downslope wind from the Cascades will aid in a dry environment and you can see that west of the Cascades with the relative humidity very low on Wednesday (third image in the gallery). I expect the relative humidity to be down in the low teens on Wednesday.

As long as the relative humidity is low, there isn’t much moisture for fuels to attach to. Additional research about wildfires in the PNW has indicated fire conditions may represent what occurred the day prior. Of course, if the conditions aren’t improving the day before, then they likely won’t have a swift turnaround the next day if there isn’t a weather changing system moving in like a large rain event.

WHEN DOES THE WIND SHIFT?

The overall wind pattern will probably fully shift by Friday morning. This will hopefully help back off the intense wind and slow down the spreading to the west. It will most noticeably change the direction of the wildfire smoke. You can find updates on the air quality here.

The growing wildfires, smoke, and wind damage from the Labor Day wind episode is going to be a historic event. Below is video that was shared from the Marion County Sheriff’s Deputy of the wildfire taking over structures in Mill City, Oregon.

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