Cedar Creek Fire: Wet weather hinders firefighters, but burning planned as it dries out

Firefighters are preparing to resume burning potential fuel for the Cedar Creek Fire as the weather gets warmer and drier into the early part of next week, hopeful of preventing another westward push if east winds start blowing again.

Wet, cool weather starting last weekend helped moderate the Cedar Creek Fire burning west of Oakridge, which was ignited by an Aug. 1 lightning strike, but damp conditions also made burning and other firefighting tactics more difficult to conduct. The upcoming change in the weather coming should give firefighters more opportunities to pursue their preferred tactics.

In the wake of the east wind event that began Sept. 12 and blew the fire toward the Oakridge area, firefighters burned out many ridges and other pockets of unburnt fuels to reduce the likelihood of similar threats to those communities. The fire grew 17,000 acres Sept. 9, mostly due to burning operations, and was nearly 110,361 acres Sept. 10.

More:Cedar Creek Fire grows by 17,000 acres, mostly due to burning operations

But wetter weather that started a week ago reduced firefighters' capacity to burn and conduct other operations.

"You had a lot of dampness out there, and then the wind dropped, and it became really foggy. You can't do anything active with that," said Jose Acosta, a spokesman for Pacific Northwest Incident Command Team 3.

"If you can't see, you can't work. That was a real hinderance. So they approached it by doing more planning and they kind of waited it out."

Slow week for burning operations

The Cedar Creek Fire was an estimated 113,322 acres Monday and 11% contained. There were 2,577 personnel assigned to the fire, as well as 92 engines, 58 separate fire crews, 105 pieces of heavy machinery and 12 helicopters.

The fire had grown to an estimated 113,809 acres Friday morning and 17% contained. There were 1,990 personnel assigned to the wildfire, as well as 50 engines, 34 separate crews, 68 pieces of heavy equipment, and eight helicopters.

More:Cedar Creek Fire threats to Oakridge area diminished but not gone

The next phase of potentially aggressive burning could recommence if the weather stays dry and warms up.

"You need it dry enough to ignite things," Acosta said. "We should be there in a few days,"

Acosta said conditions for firefighters started improving Thursday, giving fire managers opportunities to validate plans.

Acosta said firefighters now are conducting air and ground reconnaissance to scout out places suitable for burning operations on the fire's southern and southwestern side where there is a higher threat of fire spreading.

"They're starting to put together some assessments from the air, and that's going to support the initial plans for burnouts. With all of this rain, clouds and smoke inversion, you couldn't see anything, so you can't make any plans."

Acosta said the planning is not focused on the western and northwestern sides of the fire, which most immediately could endanger the Oakridge area, because that part of the fire's perimeter has high levels of containment.

Better burning conditions ahead

Acosta said fire managers continue to plan burning strategies because the risk of east wind events isn't yet over.

"This area historically gets about five eastern wind events per year in September and October. There's only been one so far. So (firefighters) need to cleanup those flanks because if they get an eastern wind, it may cause the fire to move in new ways when they're not ready. It would continue burning toward the highway and a bit toward Oakridge," Acosta said.

National Weather Service Portland Office Meteorologist John Bumgardner said the next chance of rain over the Cedar Creek Fire isn't until Tuesday night. Forecast models are uncertain, but it's possible more rain will fall later in the week.

A firefighter walks the line along a back burn on the northwest flank of the Cedar Creek Fire east of Oakridge.
A firefighter walks the line along a back burn on the northwest flank of the Cedar Creek Fire east of Oakridge.

Temperatures are expected to warm through the weekend, Bumgardner said.

Pacific Northwest Incident Command Team 3 is preparing to hand over management of the Cedar Creek Fire to Team 9 Monday, Acosta said. That means fire managers will be cautious about starting any new operations prior to the transition.

"When you change management, you've got to be very careful. There could be some burning, but if they do any over the next couple of days it's going to be very limited in scope," Acosta said. "We're keeping the people on staff so they can support the plan this team recommends and they'll be available for the next team to immediately continue work."

Contact reporter Adam Duvernay at aduvernay@registerguard.com. Follow on Twitter @DuvernayOR.

This article originally appeared on Register-Guard: Cedar Creek Fire update firefighter approach in wet as weather dries