Wildfires Grow in Oregon as 500K Evacuated, Death Toll Rises

By Adrees Latif and Carlos Barria | September 11, 2020

Around half a million people in Oregon evacuated as dozens of extreme, wind-driven wildfires scorched U.S. West Coast states on Friday, destroying thousands of homes and killing at least 16 people, state and local authorities said.

In southern Oregon, an apocalyptic scene of burned residential subdivisions and trailer parks stretched for miles along Highway 99 south of Medford through Phoenix and Talent, one of the worst hit areas, according to a Reuters photographer at the scene.

Blazes jumped from wildfires burning through scrub and forest to suburban firestorms as flames jumped from house to house.

Online video from the Tacoma, Washington, area showed fires starting in a residential area and setting homes ablaze, and locals running from house to house to warn neighbors.

“Everybody out, everybody out,” a man screamed as firefighters tried to douse flames.

Since Monday, 11 people have died from fires in California, while four were killed in Oregon and a 1-year-old boy died in Washington state, police reported.

In Oregon alone the number of people under evacuation orders climbed to some 500,000 – about an eighth of the state’s total population – as Portland suburbs came under threat as two of the state’s biggest blazes merged into one, the state Office of Emergency Management said.

Thousands more were displaced north and south in the neighboring states of Washington and California.

“We had four hours to pack up our pets and a few medications and things like that,” said retiree John Maylone from an evacuation center in Fresno, California, after he was forced to leave three of his 30 cats as he fled the massive Creek Fire as it burned within a few miles of his home.

Oregon bore the brunt of nearly 100 major wildfires raging across Western states, with around 3,000 firefighters battling nearly three dozen blazes and officials saying about twice as many people were needed.

Police have opened a criminal arson investigation into the Oregon fire which destroyed much of Phoenix and talent and started in Ashland near the border with California, Ashland Police Chief Tighe O’Meara said.

Dozens of homes were burned at the Bear Creek trailer park nine miles (15 km) south of Medford, where families returned to find ashes and torched cars, according to another Reuters photographer.

At least four Oregon police departments warned of “fake” online messages appearing to be from law enforcement that blamed left-wing anti-fascists and right-wing Proud Boy activists for starting the fires.

The Oregon blazes tore through multiple communities in the Cascade mountain range as well as areas of coastal rainforest normally spared from wildfires. In eastern Washington state a fire destroyed most of the tiny farming town of Malden.

Search-and-rescue teams entered devastated communities in central Oregon’s Santiam Valley to look for missing people after a 12-year-old boy was found dead with his dog in a burned-out car and his grandmother was also thought to have died.

Firefighters said unusually hot, dry winds out of the east created firestorms that spread embers from community to community, and then from house to house.

Oregon Governor Kate Brown said some 900,000 acres (364,220 hectares) had burned, dwarfing the state’s annual 500,000-acre (202,340-hectare) average over the past decade.

“This will not be a onetime event,” Brown told a Thursday news conference. “We are feeling the acute impacts of climate change”

Over 100 years of fire suppression by state and federal authorities has created a huge buildup of dead trees and undergrowth to fuel fires that have naturally burned in the West’s forests for eons. In recent decades Americans have built houses in those forests as second homes or due to rising prices in metropolitan areas like San Francisco, Portland and Seattle.

Climate scientists say global warming has contributed to greater extremes in wet and dry seasons, causing vegetation to flourish then dry out, leaving more abundant, volatile fuel for fires.

In California, the United States’ most populous state, wildfires have burned over 3.1 million acres (1.25 million hectares) so far this year, marking a record for any year, with six of the top 20 largest wildfires in state history occurring in 2020.

About a third of evacuees were displaced in Butte County alone, north of Sacramento, where the North Complex wildfire has scorched more than 247,000 acres (99,960 hectares) and destroyed over 2,000 homes and structures.

The remains of 10 victims have been found in separate locations of that fire zone, according to a spokesman for the Butte County Sheriff’s Office.

Another person died in Siskiyou County in far northern California, state fire authority CalFire reported, providing no further details.

(Reporting by Barria and Latif; additional reporting by Andrew Hay, Steve Gorman and Sharon Bernstein; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

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