Lighter winds and rising humidity overnight helped efforts to tackle 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 what we know and the numbers 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. Marion county sheriff Joe Kast said on Friday evening that searchers found two victims of the Beachie Creek fire near Salem. A one-year-old boy was killed in wildfires in Washington state as the toll for the whole west coast rose past 20.
In Oregon, hundreds of firefighters were battling two large blazes that threatened to merge near the most populated part of the state, including suburbs of Portland.
Brown corrected a 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, she said. Scores were missing in Jackson and Marion counties, Brown added.
Jackson county sheriff Nathan Sickler said a 41-year-old man was arrested 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.
“I think we’re somewhere in the neighborhood of, you know, around 50 individuals that, you know, we’re trying to locate maybe a little less,” he said. “It’s going to be a process for sure.”
“The wind laid down quite a bit for us yesterday,“ said Stefan Myers, of the Oregon fire information team.
Almost 500 personnel were working on the fires near Portland, which were just a few miles apart but with rugged terrain limiting efforts to control the flames, Myers said. If the fires merge, they could generate enough heat to send embers thousands of feet into the air, potentially igniting other areas.
Authorities said more than 1,500 square miles have burned in Oregon in recent days, nearly double the amount in a typical year, an area larger than Rhode Island.
In California, at least 19 people have died amid record-shattering wildfires, even as crews report some progress.
A wildfire in Butte county in northern California that has burned more than 250,000 acres has killed at least 10. Sheriff’s officials confirmed seven more deaths from the North Complex fire on Thursday and said 16 people remained missing.
The state department of forestry and fire protection announced that “the 2020 fire season has been record-breaking, in not only the total amount of acres burned at just over 3 million, but also six of the top 20 largest wildfires in California history have occurred this year.”
“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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