FILE — Oregon fire map

A map of Oregon's active wildfires as of September 9, 2020.

(The Center Square) — Three Oregon prisons are adding hundreds of prisoners into a single Salem prison as raging wildfires force thousands of people out of their homes across the American West Coast.

Exactly 1,450 men from Santiam, Mill Creek, and Oregon State prisons were evacuated late Tuesday to Oregon State Penitentiary in light of the county’s uncontrolled Beachie Creek and Lionshead wildfires.

Prisoners will be sleeping in emergency beds and join the penitentiary’s more than 2,000 current prisoners, Oregon Department of Corrections Communications Manager Jennifer Black confirmed. Incoming prisoners will ideally be housed with others from their prison of origin.

Employees from the three evacuated prisons will work with penitentiary staff, but Black did not disclose what plans the department has to keep prisoners social distanced per Gov. Kate Brown’s health orders.

Residents in the nearby towns of Stayton and Aumsville, are currently on Level 2 "Be Set" evacuation notices and are advised to be prepared to evacuate in a split second.

As of September 7, the Oregon Department of Corrections reported 829 COVID-19 cases among inmates and six inmate deaths from COVID-19 in its facilities.

The evacuations at the three Oregon prisons come after Brown announced in August that she is considering commuting more prisoner sentences in response to outbreaks in Oregon prisons.

On Wednesday morning, the Oregon Office of Emergency Management reported that the Beachie Creek Fire near Detroit has burned 132,450 acres and is zero percent contained. The Lionshead Fire near Warm Springs has grown to 91,754 acres and is 5 percent contained.

The agency reported there are now more than 35 active wildfires in Oregon which have burned more than 368,000 acres total. More than a dozen fires started over the three-day Labor Day weekend.

During a Tuesday afternoon press briefing, Brown invoked the Emergency Conflagration Act for the Beachie Creek, Lionshead, and Holiday Farm fires, saying they pose a “threat to life, safety and property” and are well beyond the ability of local firefighters to contain.

"We knew that Oregon was facing extreme fire danger due to unseasonably hot, dry temperatures," Brown said. "Unfortunately we now find ourselves in the middle of a 72-hour window of an extreme fire event consisting of several significant and growing fires across the state.”

The Holiday Farm Fire, which started on Monday, has grown to 32,000 acres in the Willamette National Forest. It is zero percent contained.

In Washington, Gov. Jay Inslee warned residents during a Tuesday afternoon press briefing that high temperatures and higher winds will worsen.

Inslee said that 330,000 acres had burned since Monday—more than 12 of the state's previous wildfire seasons. 

The Washington State Department of Natural Resources reported on Wednesday morning that the Cold Springs Fire has grown to roughly 163,000 acres while the Whitney Fire grew to 100,000 acres. Both fires, located in eastern Washington, are zero percent contained.

Inslee emphasized that high winds and high temperatures over the next week will likely worsen fire conditions over the coming days.

“We’re living in a new world,” Inslee said. “This is not the old Washington. A fire that you might have seen that was going to be okay over time isn’t okay anymore.”

Inslee added that he is working on a new executive order providing emergency relief to affected Washington residents and urged people to avoid any kind of outdoors activity that could ignite a single spark.

Washington Emergency Management Division Director Robert Ezelle said during Tuesday’s briefing that the state has applied for federal aid which would cover up to 75 percent of firefighting costs.

The federal aid would apply specifically for the Apple Acre fire in Chelan County, Cold Spring Fire in Omak, and Pearl Hill Fire in Douglas County.

Staff Reporter

Tim Gruver is a politics and public policy reporter. He is a University of Washington alum and the recipient of the 2017 Pioneer News Award for Reporting. His work has appeared in Politico, the Kitsap Daily News, and the Northwest Asian Weekly.