USGS Responds to Oregon Wildfires

Release Date:

On Labor Day, September 7, 2020, dry conditions combined with unusually strong summer winds resulted in several fires in western and southern Oregon. These fires have caused property damage and fatalities.

Six fires grew significantly since Labor Day and include from north to south:

  • Riverside Fire (Willamette Valley-Clackamas River watershed)
  • Beachie Creek/Lionshead Fires (Willamette Valley-Santiam River watershed/Warm Springs River and other watersheds)
  • Holiday Farm Fire (Willamette Valley-McKenzie River watershed)
  • Archie Fire (North Umpqua River watershed)
  • South Obenchain Fire (Rogue River watershed)
  • Almeda Fire (Rogue Valley-Bear Creek watershed)

Clicking on the file below will show a map with the areas impacted by the recent wildfires and the locations of USGS streamflow gages.

Areas impacted by the September, 2020 wildfires in Oregon and the location of USGS streamflow gages.

(Public domain.)

The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) operates sites to monitor discharge (or streamflow) and water quality, which are critical to infrastructure, ecology, and drinking water in the watersheds affected by fires. Sites are operated in cooperation with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) Willamette Valley Project for flood mitigation and ecological flows for Endangered Species Act-listed fish, PacifiCorp and Portland General Electric for hydroelectric dam operation, drinking water providers to understand the quality of the source water reaching their water intakes on rivers, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, City of Ashland, Oregon Department of Transportation, and Douglas County. The fires affect areas upstream of drinking water intakes for Salem, Eugene, and the southern suburbs of Portland.

As a result of the impacts from the fires, many USGS sites monitoring discharge, precipitation, and water quality were affected and two new sites were started to monitor those impacts. Clicking on the file below will download a table with those sites.

Preliminary assessments indicated that damage was widespread to the equipment for power and communications as shown in the following photographs, and more limited damage occurred to the sensors which are typically in water and logging equipment in the gage houses. Cableways, which allow personnel to measure discharge in large rivers, were also damaged. Additional sites located outside of the impacted areas (and not listed in the table above) were also affected because the fires impacted power or communication, which interrupted the transfer of data to USGS servers and the National Water Information System (NWIS) website.

North Santiam River cableway

Cableway on North Santiam River at Niagara, Oregon (Site number 14181500)

(Credit: Johnathan Shannon, USGS. Public domain.)



Blue River stream gage

Stream gage on Blue River at Blue River, Oregon, (Site number 14162200)

(Credit: James King, USGS. Public domain.)

Blue River cableway and stream gage

Cableway (foreground) and stream gage (background) on Blue River at Blue River, Oregon (Site number 14162200)

(Credit: Chris McWhorter, USGS. Public domain.)


McKenzie River stream gage

Stream gage on McKenzie River near Vida, Oregon (Site number 14162500) 

(Credit: James King, USGS. Public domain.)


South Fork McKenzie River stream gage

Stream gage on South Fork McKenzie River near Rainbow, Oregon (Site number 14159500)

(Credit: Keith Overton, USGS. Public domain.)

Beginning on September 14, USGS staff—in collaboration with the USACE, the Eugene Water and Electric Board, the City of Salem, PacifiCorp, and others—worked tireless to restore the discharge, precipitation, and water quality monitoring networks affected by the fires. As of September 21, eleven gages were partially or fully restored. The graphs below show how the fire affected streamflow and water quality at two of the sites.

McKenzie River discharge

Hydrograph for the McKenzie River near Vida, OR showing how fire disrupted monitoring of stream discharge from September 8-16, 2020.

(Public domain.)

McKenzie River turbidity

Turbidity response in the McKenzie River near Vida, OR to the start of fire (the data stored in sonde retrieved on September, 17, 2020).

(Public domain.)

McKenzie River dissolved organic matter

Dissolved organic matter measured by a new temporary water quality monitor deployed on September, 16, 2020 in the McKenzie River near Walterville, OR upstream of drinking water intake to capture water quality response to forecasted rain on September 18, 2020.

(Public domain.)

Restoration of the sites continues. Where sites are destroyed, USGS will attempt to install temporary gages to ensure data are collected. USGS plans to collect stream and sediment information and use the restored monitoring network to understand the effect of fire on water resources and water-related infrastructure.