PORTLAND, Oregon (Reuters) – An unprecedented wave of deadly wildfires raging across Oregon kept 500,000 people – about one in eight residents – on evacuation alert on Friday, although weary firefighters took advantage of the improvement. time to go on the offensive against fires.
Windfires destroyed thousands of homes in days, making Oregon the latest epicenter of a larger summer outbreak of wildfires that swept the western United States, collectively burning a New Jersey-sized landscape and killing at least two dozen people.
Although at least four lives were lost in Oregon this week, Governor Kate Brown warned that the death toll could go up a lot and on Friday said dozens of people were reported missing in three fire-affected counties.
The head of the Bureau of Emergency Management, Andrew Phelps, said emergency teams searching the burnt ruins of half a dozen devastated small towns are preparing to deal with possible “mass fatalities”
The Pacific Northwest as a whole has borne the brunt of an arson attack that began around Labor Day, obscuring the sky with smoke and ash that hit Northern California, Oregon and Washington with some of the worst quality levels in the world. air of the world.
The firestorms, some of the largest ever recorded in California and Oregon, were driven by strong winds that howled in the region for days amid record heat. Scientists say global warming has also contributed to extreme levels in wet and dry seasons, causing vegetation to bloom and then dry out, leaving more abundant and volatile fuel for fires.
“EVERYTHING IS GONE”
“This is a damn climate emergency. This is real and it is happening. This is the perfect storm, ”California Governor Gavin Newsom told reporters from a charred mountain near Oroville, California.
In southern Oregon, an apocalyptic scene of charred residential subdivisions and trailer parks stretched for miles along Highway 99 south of Medford through the nearby towns of Phoenix and Talent, one of the most devastated areas.
Beatriz Gomez Bolanos, 41, told her four children to close their eyes as fires raged on both sides of their car during their escape from Bear Creek Mobile Home Park south of Medford, even as embers rained down on them. home.
“It all went. We have to start from scratch, but we are alive, ”Gomez Bolanos told Reuters on the phone.
Authorities opened an investigation into that fire on Thursday.
Molalla, a community about 40 kilometers south of downtown Portland, was an ash-covered ghost town after its more than 9,000 residents were told to evacuate, with only 30 refusing to leave, firefighters said. city.
The logging city was at the forefront of a large evacuation zone that stretched north to 3 miles from downtown Portland. The sheriff on the outskirts of Clackamas County set 10 pm. PDT curfew (0500 on Saturday GMT) to discourage “the possible increase in criminal activity”.
Governor Brown said in a news conference that more than half a million residents were under one of three evacuation alarm levels, advising them to pack their bags and be alert, be ready to flee in a moment or leave immediately. . About 40,000 of them had already been ordered to leave.
In neighboring Washington state to the north, an online video from the Tacoma area showed fires in a residential area burning homes, and locals rushed to warn neighbors.
“All out, all out!” a man yelled as firefighters tried to put out the flames.
BREAK WITH TIME
After four days of dangerously hot and windy weather, a glimmer of hope came in the form of calmer winds blowing from the ocean, bringing cooler, wetter conditions that helped firefighters make progress against the flames that had burned. largely uncontrolled early in the week.
“The weather will be favorable for us,” said Doug Grafe, chief of fire protection for the Oregon Forestry Department, adding that the time outage was expected to continue until next week, allowing firefighters to move forward. “the offense.”
The overall death toll of the western fire siege that began in August jumped to 24 after seven people were killed in a blazing blaze in the mountains north of Sacramento, California. The count of deaths from fires in California was Friday at 7 pm in all, including eight from fires that started in August and were still burning this week. In addition to four confirmed deaths in Oregon, Washington state accounted for one.
More than 68,000 people were under evacuation orders in California, where the largest wildfire in the state’s history burned over 740,000 acres (299,470 hectares) in the Mendocino National Forest, approximately 120 miles (190 km) northwest of Sacramento.
“We had four hours to pack our pets and some medications and things like that,” retiree John Maylone said from an evacuation center in Fresno, California after being forced to leave three of his 30 cats as he fled. huge Fire Creek.
Paradise, a city devastated by California’s deadliest fire in 2018, recorded the worst air quality index in the world at 592, according to monitoring site PurpleAir, while two of the state’s largest fires burned on both sides. .
Reporting by Deborah Bloom in Portland, Oregon.; Additional reporting by Carlos Barria, Adrees Latif, Andrew Hay, Steve Gorman, Mimi Dwyer, Sharon Bernstein and Dan Whitcomb; Written by Andrew Hay and Steve Gorman; Editing by Bill Tarrant, Tom Brown, Cynthia Osterman and Daniel Wallis