PORTLAND, Ore. (Reuters) – An unprecedented spate of deadly Oregon forest fires on Friday kept 500,000 people – about one in eight residents – under evacuation alert, despite tired firefighters taking advantage of the improved weather to go on the offensive against the flames.
The wind-driven fires destroyed thousands of houses within a few days. This makes Oregon the newest epicenter in a major summer outbreak of fires in the western United States that collectively scorch a New Jersey-sized landscape and kill at least two dozen people.
Although at least four people are known to have died in Oregon this week, Governor Kate Brown warned the death toll could be far higher, saying on Friday that dozens of people in three fire-stricken counties are reported missing were.
Andrew Phelps, chief of the Office of Emergency Management, said disaster teams that searched the burned ruins of half a dozen devastated towns braced themselves for possible “mass extinctions.”
The Pacific Northwest as a whole has borne the brunt of a fire storm that started around Labor Day and darkened the skies with smoke and ash that struck northern California, Oregon, and Washington with some of the worst air quality levels in the world.
The firestorms, some of the largest in California and Oregon, were propelled by high winds that howled through the region for days amid record-breaking heat. Scientists say global warming has also contributed to extremes in the rainy and dry seasons, causing vegetation to thrive and then dry out, leaving more, volatile fuel for forest fires.
‘EVERYTHING IS GONE’
“This is a climate-damaging emergency. This is real and it happens. This is the perfect storm, “California Governor Gavin Newsom told reporters from a charred mountainside near Oroville, California.
In southern Oregon, an apocalyptic scene of charred neighborhoods and trailer parks stretched miles along Highway 99 south of Medford through the neighboring towns of Phoenix and Talent, one of the most devastated areas.
Beatriz Gomez Bolanos, 41, told her four children to close their eyes while fires raged on both sides of their car on their escape from Bear Creek Mobile Home Park south of Medford, despite embers raining rain on their house.
“Everything is gone. We have to start all over again, but we’re alive,” Gomez Bolanos told Reuters by phone.
The authorities opened an arson investigation into the fire on Thursday.
Molalla, a parish about 25 miles south of downtown Portland, was an ash-covered ghost town after more than 9,000 residents were ordered to evacuate. Only 30 refused to leave, the city fire department said.
The logging town was at the forefront of a huge evacuation zone that stretched north to within three miles of downtown Portland. The suburban Clackamas County sheriff set a curfew at 10:00 pm (5:00 am Saturday GMT) to prevent “possible increased criminal activity.”
Governor Brown told a news conference that more than half a million residents were below one of three evacuation alert levels, advising them to pack and be vigilant, be ready to flee or leave immediately. About 40,000 of them had already been asked to leave.
In neighboring Washington state to the north, an online video from the Tacoma area showed residential fires with houses on fire and locals rushing to warn neighbors.
“Everyone out, everyone out!” One man yelled as firefighters tried to put out the flames.
BREAK IN THE WEATHER
After four days of treacherously hot, windy weather, a glimmer of hope came in the form of calmer winds from the sea, bringing cooler, wetter conditions with them that helped firefighters deal with flames that had burned largely uncontrollably earlier in the week.
“The weather will be good for us,” said Doug Grafe, chief fire officer for the Oregon Department of Forestry, adding that the weather break is expected to last until next week so that firefighters “can continue the crime.” ”
The western fire siege death toll, which began in August, rose to 24 after seven people were killed in a fire in the mountains north of Sacramento, California. In total, fire-related deaths were counted in California at 7 p.m. on Friday, including eight from flames that began in August and continued this week. In addition to four confirmed deaths in Oregon, Washington state was responsible for one.
More than 68,000 people were under evacuation orders in California, where the largest fire in the state’s history in the Mendocino National Forest, some 190 km northwest of Sacramento, burned over 299,470 hectares (740,000 acres).
“We had four hours to pack our pets and some medication and the like,” said retiree John Maylone of an evacuation center in Fresno, Calif. After he was forced to abandon three of his 30 cats when he was out of the vast creek fled fire.
Paradise, a city hit by California’s deadliest wildfire in 2018, had the worst air quality index in the world at 592, according to the PurpleAir monitoring site, as two of the state’s largest flames burned on either side.
Reporting by Deborah Bloom in Portland, Ore .; Additional reporting from Carlos Barria, Adrees Latif, Andrew Hay, Steve Gorman, Mimi Dwyer, Sharon Bernstein, and Dan Whitcomb; Writing by Andrew Hay and Steve Gorman; Adaptation by Bill Tarrant, Tom Brown, Cynthia Osterman, and Daniel Wallis