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Another important tool as wildfire season ramps up: Social media

Firefighting agencies are increasingly turning to social media to share the news about wildfires in the Pacific Northwest.
Firefighting agencies are increasingly turning to social media to share the news about wildfires in the Pacific Northwest.

Wildfire season ramped up in Oregon this week, with crews battling several large fires and many more small fires. And fire officials ramped up their use of social media to let residents know when fires have grown or when crews have a handle on them.

The biggest of the wildfires, the Sycan River Fire, is burning on Fremont-Winema National Forest land in Klamath County. As of Thursday night, it was 615 acres and it was 75% contained.

South of there, closer to Beatty, Oregon, crews also battled the Yellow Jacket Fire mid-week. It only grew to about 34 acres before it was fully contained.

But just as crews were getting a handle on those two fires, thunderstorms rolled through and they had to deal with six fires caused by lightning, according to the South Central Oregon Fire Management Partnership, or SCOFMP.

To the west, in Douglas County, the Mehl Creek Fire was first reported at 50 acres and then spread up a hillside and doubled in size within a few hours Tuesday night. By Thursday night officials announced it was mostly contained and had burned a total of 110 acres.

The most high-profile fire of the week, while not the biggest, was the Mile Post 85 Fire just west of The Dalles. The fire jumped Interstate 84 and closed the freeway for several hours, prompting Level 3, “Go Now,” evacuations in the area for several hours. By Thursday morning, all evacuations were lifted and crews were mopping up. That fire had burned 130 acres.

The technology has changed over the years, enough that state agencies and officials can provide extremely specific interactive resources, showing evolving maps of the wildfires and tracking the containment levels. Reports even tally twice daily how many human-caused and lightning-caused there have been so far this year.

But, increasingly, the way to stay abreast of fire activity, in addition to signing up for citizen alert systems, is to check local agencies’ Facebook pages and Twitter feed. In many cases the wealth of interactive info and perimeter maps still lags a bit behind the photos and PDFs that law enforcement, fire departments and other officials provide on social media in real time. And in most cases, those social posts are easy to find, load and read on your phone, even when the power’s out.

The Sycan River Fire began on Sunday afternoon, and by Sunday night Klamath County, along with SCOFMP, had posted five Facebook updates that included evacuation notices, video and photos of the firefighting efforts and instructions on signing up for emergency alerts, which were shared by hundreds of people. They continued posting similar updates throughout the week on that and the Yellow Jacket Fire.

Then as lightning was starting fires in the area Thursday, SCOFMP started a Twitter thread to let people know what they were dealing with and where.

The Douglas Forest Protective Association posted Facebook updates throughout the week on the Mehl Creek Fire, including photos from the firefight and praise for the teams involved.

And the Mile Post 85 Fire played out on the Wasco County Sheriff’s Office Facebook page starting with a simple text post saying “BRUSH FIRE,” and asking people to avoid the area due to limited visibility. By the time evacuation levels were lowered to Level 1 just a few hours later, the sheriff’s office had posted six more updates.

Fire season is underway early this year and this was just a look at what has happened since Sunday. It doesn’t even include the dozens of smaller fires dotting Oregon on this map. But getting through the season means having as many tools in your belt as possible. Get your wildfire emergency kit ready, sign up for emergency alerts, and follow your local law enforcement and firefighting teams on social media. Sometimes a simple text post reading “BRUSH FIRE” can signal that it’s time to get ready to go.

Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Jeff Thompson