By Deborah Bloom
PORTLAND, Ore. (Reuters) – Deadly wildfires raging across Oregon kept half a million people under evacuation alert on Saturday even as weary firefighters took advantage of improved weather to go on the offensive against the blazes.
The fires have destroyed thousands of homes in days, making Oregon the latest epicenter in a larger summer outbreak of fires sweeping the western United States, collectively scorching a landscape the size of New Jersey and killing at least 25 people.
At least five people died in Oregon this week. Governor Kate Brown has warned the death toll could grow far higher and said on Friday that dozens of people had been reported missing in three counties.
Oregon Office of Emergency Management chief Andrew Phelps said disaster teams searching the scorched ruins of a half-dozen small towns laid to waste were bracing to encounter possible “mass fatality incidents.”
The Pacific Northwest as a whole has borne the brunt of an incendiary onslaught that began around Labor Day, darkening the sky with smoke and ash that has beset northern California, Oregon and Washington with some of the world’s worst air-quality levels.
The firestorms, some of the largest on record in California and Oregon, were driven by high winds that howled across the region for days in the midst of record-breaking heat. Scientists say global warming has also contributed to extremes in wet and dry seasons, causing vegetation to flourish then dry out, leaving more abundant fuel for wildfires.
‘THE PERFECT STORM’
“This is a climate damn emergency. This is real and it’s happening. This is the perfect storm,” California Governor Gavin Newsom told reporters from a charred mountainside near Oroville, California.
More than 4,000 homes and other structures have been incinerated in California alone over the past three weeks, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
Tens of thousands of firefighters were battling 28 major wildfires across California as of Saturday morning, the department said. Most were being contained to some degree except for one in Siskiyou County, which grew out of control.
In southern Oregon, an apocalyptic scene of charred residential subdivisions and trailer parks stretched for miles along Highway 99 south of Medford through the neighboring towns of Phoenix and Talent, one of the most devastated areas.
Molalla, a community about 25 miles (40 km) 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, the city’s fire department said.
The logging town was on the front line of a vast evacuation zone stretching north to within 3 miles (4.8 km) of downtown Portland. The sheriff in suburban Clackamas County set a 10 p.m. PDT (0500 on Saturday GMT) curfew to deter “possible increased criminal activity.”
In Portland, the Multnomah County Sheriff chastised residents who had taken it upon themselves to set up checkpoints and stop cars after conspiracy theories spread that left-wing activists who oppose President Donald Trump were starting some of the blazes, which local authorities say is groundless.
Governor Brown told a news conference that more than 500,000 people were under one of three evacuation alert levels, advising them to pack and be vigilant, to be ready to flee at a moment’s notice, or to leave immediately. About 40,000 of those had already been ordered to leave.
In neighboring Washington state, online video from the Tacoma area showed fires in a residential area setting homes ablaze and locals scurrying to warn neighbors.
“Everybody out, everybody out!” a man screamed as firefighters tried to douse the flames.
BREAK IN THE WEATHER
After four days of treacherously hot, windy weather, a glimmer of hope arrived in the form of calmer winds blowing in from the ocean, bringing cooler, moister conditions that helped firefighters make headway against blazes that had burned largely unchecked earlier in the week.
The overall death toll from the Western fires that began in August jumped to 25 after seven people were reported killed in mountains north of Sacramento, California, and Oregon’s fifth fatality was reported in Marion County, outside of Salem, the state capital.
Paradise, a town blasted by California’s deadliest wildfire in 2018, posted the world’s worst air quality index reading at 592, according to the PurpleAir monitoring site, as two of the state’s largest blazes burned on either side of it.