As wildfires rampaged across Oregon on Saturday, the state’s top firefighter was put on leave, Oregon State Police announced.
State Fire Marshal Jim Walker, who has held the role since 2014, is being placed on paid administrative leave for unspecified reasons.
Walker is succeeded by Chief Deputy State Fire Marshal Mariana Ruiz-Temple, who will fill the position in an acting capacity.
Oregon State Police Superintendent Travis Hampton said on Saturday the state’s unprecedented fire emergency demanded new leadership.
“Mariana is assuming this position as Oregon is in an unprecedented crisis which demands an urgent response,” Hampton said in a statement. “This response and the circumstances necessitated a leadership change. I have the absolute confidence in Mariana to lead OSFM operations through this critical time. She is tested, trusted and respected – having the rare combination of technical aptitude in field operations and administration.”
The news comes as more favorable winds and temperatures are expected in Oregon while at least 20 major fires are burning statewide.
At least 500,000 Oregonians are now under one of three levels of evacuation orders, Gov. Kate Brown said on Friday. Wildfires further threaten hundreds of thousands of businesses amid the country’s deep recession.
Brown further reported on Friday that dozens of people are being reported missing across the state.
On Saturday, the National Wildfire Coordinating Group (NWCP) reported one of the state’s largest wildfires, the Santiam Fire, is still uncontrolled as more than 1,700 personnel attempt to contain it.
The Santiam Fire is comprised of the now merged Beachie Creek and Lionshead Fires, which have grown to roughly 186,000 and 136,000 acres, respectively.
The Lionshead Fire was 5 percent contained on Saturday, the NWCP reported, and is listed as being caused by lightning.
A smaller, 4,600 acre fire called the P-515 Fire is 95 percent contained to the east.
NWCP reports that the two fires, which began around Aug. 16, have an tentative containment date of around Oct. 31.
The fire threatens nearly all of Marion County where Level 2 and 3 evacuation orders, “Get Set” and “Go Now,” are in effect countywide save for the state capitol in Salem.
Holiday Farm Fire
To the south of the Santiam Fire in Linn and Lane Counties, the Holiday Farm Fire is now at 156,000 acres and has 425 personnel fighting it as of Saturday, the NWCP reported.
Well over half of Linn County has Level 2 and 3 evacuation orders in effect along with most of Lane County.
The uncontrolled Riverside Fire in Clackamas County near Estacada is now at 130,000 acres. It began around Tuesday and is zero percent contained as 246 personnel are fighting it. NWCP reports it is being regarded as human-caused.
Clackamas County officials voiced concern earlier in the week that the fire has the possibility of merging with the Santiam Fire several miles to the south.
However, slowing winds on Friday have allowed fire crews to begin fighting it in earnest after being told to fall back on Thursday, the NWCP reported.
Poor air quality persists in the Pacific Northwest as every major city, from Seattle to Medford, had “Unhealthy” to “Hazardous” air on Saturday according to AirNow data.
AirNow ranked Salem’s smoky skies as “Beyond Index” or off the charts while Medford near the Oregon-California border was listed as “Hazardous.” Portland and Seattle were ranked as “Hazardous” and “Very Unhealthy,” respectively.
Even towns as far north as Lynden, Washington, near the Canadian-American border, ranked as”Unhealthy.”
Meterologists have estimated wildfire smoke will linger in some capacity across Oregon and Washington for weeks to come.
Fifteen major fires are burning throughout Washington with the biggest being concentrated in the central and northeastern parts of the state. They are slowly seeing major progress in being contained.
On Friday, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said that more than 626,000 total acres have burned in the state and warned residents about the state’s smoky air.
“I hope people will consider staying home this weekend unless you really have to go out,” Inslee said.
During a Friday press briefing, Washington State Chief John Batiste addressed the recent arrest of two men in Pierce County for allegedly setting brush fires.
Batiste said the men were not “tied to any larger scheme.”
Local, state, and national authorities have repeatedly denied the accuracy of conspiracy theories tying Pacific Northwest to far right or anti-fascist groups.
Washington’s Maj. Gen. Bret Daugherty said during Friday’s briefing that troops in Washington are “standing ready to assist them in any way that we can,” to help any evacuees who could pour in from Oregon.
Pearl Hill Fire
The 219,000 acre Pearl Hill Fire near Bridgeport is 64 percent contained as of Saturday, the NWCP reported. Its cause is under investigation. Over the weekend, 528 personnel were fighting the fire whose cause is being investigated.
Lincoln County’s Whitney Fire in Eastern Washington is at 122,000 acres as of Saturday and is 35 percent contained. Sept. 21 is its tentative date of containment, according to NWCP reports. Its cause is being reported by the NWCP as a faulty power line.
Cold Springs Fire
The deadly Cold Springs Fire near Omak has killed one person and injured two more this week. It is at 187,000 acres as of Saturday, according to the NWCP, and is 40 percent contained since it began on Sept. 6. Its cause is under investigation.
Evans Canyon Fire
In Central Washington, the Evans Canyon Fire encompassing Kittitas and Yakima counties is 90 percent contained as of Saturday after growing to 75,000 acres. Around 100 personnel are now conducting mop-up patrols in the area. It is expected to be 100 percent contained by October 1 after beginning around Aug. 31.