Unprecedented wildfires in Oregon have all but destroyed five small towns and a record number of deaths is feared, Governor Kate Brown said on Wednesday, as police began to report casualties.
Winds of up to 50 miles per hour (80 kilometers per hour) sent blazes racing tens of miles within hours, burning hundreds of homes as firefighters fought at least 35 major blazes across an area of Oregon nearly twice the size of New York City.
Multiple blazes burned to the north in Washington state as the Pacific Northwest faced the brunt of nearly 100 wildfires burning across the U.S. West. In California, officials said 64,000 people had been evacuated from their homes as 28 major fires raged across the most populous U.S. state.
In California evacuations were ordered for a broad area around a massive 200,000-acre wildfire burning north of Sacramento. Residents of more than a dozen towns including the city of Oroville were either told to evacuate immediately or be prepared to go. The fire raged perilously close to the town of Paradise, which was burned to the ground in 2018 by a wildfire, killing 85 people.
In Oregon, the community of Detroit in the Santiam Valley, as well as Blue River and Vida in coastal Lane County, and Phoenix and Talent in southern Oregon were substantially destroyed, Brown told a news conference.
“This could be the greatest loss in human lives and property due to wildfire in our state’s history,” Brown said, without providing details.
Brown talked of rescuers saving people by pulling them from rivers where they took refuge from flames.
“DRIVING THROUGH HELL”
A 12-year-old boy and his grandmother died in a wildfire burning near the Santiam Valley community of Lyons, about 50 miles south of Portland, KOIN News reported. In Washington state a 1-year-old boy was killed and his parents severely burned fleeing a fire in Okanogan County, police said.
Firefighters retreated from uncontrollable blazes in Oregon as officials gave residents “go now” orders to evacuate, meaning they had only minutes to leave their homes.
“It was like driving through hell,” Jody Evans told local television station NewsChannel21 after a midnight evacuation from Detroit, about 50 miles (80 km) west of Salem.
To the south, parts of Medford, a popular retirement location with over 80,000 residents, were under evacuation orders or warnings as a growing wildfire closed a section of Interstate 5, the primary north-south highway in the West.
As the fire moved north toward Medford it heavily damaged Talent, with about 6,000 residents, and Phoenix, with around 5,000, according to local police.
The fire is suspected so far to have caused one death north of Ashland, said Rich Tyler, spokesman for the Oregon State Fire Marshal.
Brown saw no respite to the hot, windy weather and requested a federal emergency declaration for the state.
“Absolutely no area in the state is free from fire,” said Doug Graf, chief of fire protection for the Oregon Department of Forestry.
Climate scientists blame global warming for extreme wet and dry seasons in the U.S. West that have caused grasses and scrub to flourish then dry out, leaving abundant fuel for fires.
In California, all 18 National Forests were closed due to “unprecedented and historic fire conditions.”
To the south, the Creek Fire, about 35 miles (56 km) north of Fresno, tore through the Sierra National Forest, which was susceptible due to drought and bark beetle damage, destroying over 360 homes and structures.
“This fire is just burning at an explosive rate,” said Daniel Berlant, a spokesman for California’s state fire authority. “You add the winds, the dry conditions, the hot temperatures, it’s the perfect recipe.”
Seventeen new large blazes were reported in the West on Wednesday, bringing the total to 96. More than 3.4 million acres – an area nearly the size of the U.S. state of Connecticut – have burned.