Four wildfires blanketed Detroit Lake in hazardous smoke on Sunday and brought increased evacuation levels to the Breitenbush area.
The four fires — Whitewater, Little Devil, Scorpion and Potato Hill — are currently burning around 11,500 acres to the north and east of Detroit.
Smoke from the fires led to air quality rated “hazardous” in Detroit and Breitenbush Sunday, although it could improve to “very unhealthy” by Monday.
“The smoke was actually burning our eyes,” said Gary Terlecki, who owns a cabin in Detroit and brought his family for the weekend. “It was awful. We decided to leave early.”
Meanwhile, Marion County issued a level 2 evacuation — meaning “get ready to go” — for the Breitenbush and Highway 46 area north of Detroit.
Breitenbush Hot Springs is already closed and officials said they’d close Breitenbush, Humbug and Cleator Bend campgrounds for the season on Tuesday.
The heightened evacuation comes as the Scorpion Fire and Little Devil Fire burn just two to three miles away from the Breitenbush area.
“People are breathing a lot of smoke and have not been happy when they get here,” Detroit district ranger Grady McMahan said. “We decided to get through the Labor Day Weekend and then close the campgrounds.”
Oddly, the blanket of smoke helped limit the spread of the four fires, officials said.
The Whitewater, Little Devil and Potato Hill fires haven’t grown much the past few days despite temperatures in the 100s and bone-dry conditions.
Fire teams were able to get a line around the Potato Hill Fire, burning near U.S. Highway 20 near Santiam Pass. That allowed officials to reopen two lanes of traffic on the main thoroughfare between Salem and Bend.
“In some ways the smoke does us a favor,” said Arlene Perea, spokeswoman for fire teams working the Detroit area blazes. “It shades the fire from direct sunlight, so there’s not as much heat on the flames. And, it deprives the fire of oxygen.
“That said, it’s pretty hard to look at the smoke as a benefit.”
The next two days could bring a return to active fire conditions.
A red flag warning for extreme wildfire danger is in effect until Tuesday, as boiling hot, dry and unstable weather continues its grip on the area.
A burn ban remains in effect in Marion County. The ban prohibits all fires, including recreational, backyard, and fire pits in parks and campsites.
All fires are prohibited in Willamette National Forest, including campgrounds.
Zach Urness has been an outdoors writer, photographer and videographer in Oregon for nine years. He is the author of the book “Hiking Southern Oregon” and can be reached at zurness@StatesmanJournal.com or (503) 399-6801. Find him on Twitter at @ZachsORoutdoors.