Fire crews in Oregon and California fight blazes as officials warn of further deaths


Edward Helmore in New York,
Maanvi Singh in San Francisco,
Dani Anguiano in Paradise and
Jason Wilson in Molalla

Lighter winds and rising humidity overnight helped efforts to battle massive wildfires in Oregon that have taken lives, destroyed property and burned a million acres.

But state emergency management director Andrew Phelps said officials were preparing for “a mass fatality incident” based on the number of structures that have been lost”.

Governor Kate Brown said dozens were still missing and tens of thousands had been forced to flee their homes. State officials did not release an exact death count but at least eight had been reported.

In California meanwhile, a thick layer of smoke helped crews corral the deadliest blaze of the year, but there, too, was concern that the death toll could mount as crews reach devastated areas.

The North Complex Fire in Butte county has burned more than 250,000 acres and has killed at least nine people, including a 16-year-old boy. Another 19 people remain unaccounted for, and rugged mountain areas remain too dangerous for search-and-rescue teams.

“Right now, the areas that we need to search are too hot,” Butte county sheriff Kory Honea said.

Authorities said more than 1,500 sq miles have burned in Oregon in recent days, nearly double the number in a typical year.

Hundreds of firefighters are battling two large blazes that threatened to merge near the most populated part of the state, including suburbs of Portland. If the fires merge, they could generate enough heat to send embers thousands of feet into the air, potentially igniting other areas.

Governor Brown on Friday corrected an earlier statement by the state Office of Emergency Management that said half a million people had been ordered to evacuate. More than 40,000 had been evacuated and about 500,000 had either been told to leave their homes or to prepare to do so, Brown said. Scores were missing in Jackson and Marion counties, she added.

Marion county sheriff Joe Kast said on Friday evening that searchers found two victims of the Beachie Creek fire near Salem.

“The wind laid down quite a bit for us yesterday,“ said Stefan Myers, of the Oregon fire information team.

Authorities also said they had arrested a 41-year-old man on two charges of arson, concerning a fire that started on Tuesday in the Phoenix area. The fire burned hundreds of homes and had an ignition point in Ashland near a spot where a man was found dead. Authorities said the man denied starting the fire.

Thousands of Oregonians had to evacuate twice in recent days, as fast-moving fires approached the areas they had taken shelter in.

When Shyanne Summers, of Dickie Prairie near Molalla, evacuated this week the smoke was so thick that “you could hardly see from me to you”, she said, indicating visibility of around 6ft. “I’ve never been so afraid.”

In California, the monster North Complex fire in the Sierra Nevada foothills fire largely destroyed the tiny hamlet of Berry Creek. Sixteen year-old Josiah Williams was among the first of the known victims killed by the blaze.

Smoke from the North Complex fire lingered over the town of Paradise, which was devastated by the Camp fire in 2018. Parts of Paradise was briefly under an evacuation warning this week, and the dark skies, crowded roads and falling ash brought back painful memories for a community still fighting to rebuild.

“It’s scary,” said artist Patti Lloyd. “It triggers a lot of feelings from before. I feel bad for the people going through it now because I know what it feels like.”

California has seen a record fire season, with more than 3m acres scorched and so many blazes simultaneously whipping through dry wilderness that many have converged into massive “complexes”. At least 19 people have lost their lives.

The climate crisis has increased the risks of large, extreme fires, heating and drying the landscape so it is primed for catastrophe. In California, six of the top 20 largest wildfires in the state’s history have occurred this year, the state’s department of forestry and fire protection announced.

“Just come to the state of California,” he told reporters on a mountainside scorched by flames. “Observe it with your own eyes.”

Washington governor Jay Inslee noted that in just the past five days his state had experienced its second-worst fire season, after 2015. He called the blazes “climate fires”, rather than wildfires.

“This is not an act of God,” Inslee said. “This has happened because we have changed the climate.”


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