Sep 6, 2023 - News

Camp Creek fire threatens Portland's drinking water

A photo of a mountain free line with smoke in the air.

Bull Run Lake. Photo: Courtesy of Great Basin Incident Management Team 1

With higher temperatures expected in the coming days, the Camp Creek wildfire, burning in the Bull Run Watershed near Sandy, still poses a threat to Portland's primary source of drinking water, according to fire officials.

Why it matters: The Bull Run Watershed and its reservoirs supply water to over 1 million people across the Portland area.

  • Water remains safe to drink. But fire officials are using aerial and ground resources to ensure the water treatment facility — which is just over a mile away from where the 1,900-acre fire is burning — remains unscathed.

What they're saying: "That's a big value at risk right now," Karen Dante-Wood, a spokesperson for Great Basin Incident Management Team 1, tells Axios.

  • Firefighting crews are focusing efforts along the roads leading to the facility, she added, while the structures are protected with sprinklers and a fire-resistant fabric called aluminized structure wrap.

Catch up quick: The Camp Creek fire was sparked by lightning on Aug. 24 in a thick pocket of old growth in Mount Hood National Forest.

  • As the fire quickly grew, the Portland Water Bureau put an evacuation plan in place for its employees at the Bull Run Watershed and the Bureau of Land Management closed 17 miles of trails in Sandy Ridge.

Driving the news: Cool weather and rain over Labor Day weekend helped slow the growth of the wildfire, which was 16% contained as of Tuesday afternoon. However, with drier conditions this week, there's potential for an "increase in fire activity within the perimeter," Dante-Wood said.

What's happening: Crews on the ground are working to remove vegetation and install water supply lines along Forest Service Roads 12 and 14, just south of Reservoir 2 and the treatment facility.

  • Even with four helicopters and two scooper planes, which deploy thousands of gallons of water in a matter of seconds, the biggest challenge firefighters face is accessing the fire's southeastern edge.
  • Thick tree canopies and steep terrain are making it difficult for crews to suppress the fire. And with aerial support, "only some water makes it to the ground," Dante-Wood said.

What we're watching: Whether the wildfire threatens the Bull Run Watershed to the point of shutoff.

  • The Portland Water Bureau said if Bull Run were to go offline, it would rely on groundwater from the Columbia South Shore Well Field.
  • Water bureau officials said that water source, which has already been tapped, would not be enough to support Portland and the 20 other cities in the tri-county region.

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