Dozens of extreme wind-driven wildfires burned through forests and towns in U.S. West Coast states on Thursday, destroying hundreds of homes and killing at least nine people, authorities said.
In the past 48 hours, four people died from fires in California, while four others were killed in Oregon and a one-year-old boy died in Washington state, police reported. Thousands faced evacuation orders in the three states.
Oregon bore the brunt of nearly 100 major wildfires ripping across the western states, with around 3,000 firefighters battling nearly three dozen wildfires.
Police have opened a criminal investigation into at least one Oregon blaze, the Almeda Fire that started in Ashland near the border with California, Ashland Police Chief Tighe O’Meara said.
O’Meara said investigators were treating the origins of the Almeda fire as suspicious. “We have good reason to believe that there was a human element to it. So we’re going to pursue it as a criminal investigation until we have reason to believe that it was otherwise.”
Police in Medford as well as in Douglas County to the north cautioned against rumours that left-or right-wing arsonists were starting the fires.
The blazes tore through at least five communities in Oregon’s Cascade mountain range as well as areas of coastal rainforest normally spared from wildfires. In eastern Washington state a fire destroyed most of the farming town of Malden.
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In central Oregon search and rescue teams entered torched communities like Detroit where firefighters led residents on a dramatic mountain escape after military helicopters were unable to evacuate the town.
A 12-year-old boy was found dead with his dog inside a burned car and his grandmother was believed to be dead after flames engulfed an area near Lyons, about 80 km south of Portland, Ore., the Marion County Sheriff’s Office said.
Evacuations and fear
To the south, most of the city of Medford, population 82,000, was told to evacuate or prepare to evacuate as fires burned to the north and south.
Some people counted their blessings after fleeing the Bear Creek trailer park where nearly every home burned.
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“Thank God we were at home,” said Julio Flores, a resident of the community who escaped with two children who would have been alone had his work hours not been cut due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Firefighters said unusually hot, dry winds out of the east supercharged blazes, spreading flames from community to community, and then from house to house.
“When it really gets windy these embers are going for miles,” said firefighter Andy Cardinal in Eagle Point, north of Medford where the town of around 10,000 was on standby to evacuate.
Oregon Gov. Kate Brown said up to 40,000 people had evacuated across the state, where 900,000 acres had burned, dwarfing the state’s average 500,000 acre full-year total.
“We have never seen this amount of uncontained fire across the state,” Brown told a news conference. “We are feeling the acute impacts of climate change.”
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.
Firefighters expected two of the state’s largest fires, burning around 35 kilometres southeast of downtown Portland, to merge. In nearby Molalla about 10,000 residents were relocated while in Canby, a community of 18,000 around 15 kilometres from central Portland, residents were told to be ready to leave.
California and Washington burning
In California, officials said some 64,000 people were under evacuation orders while crews battled 29 major fires across portions of the most populous U.S. state.
About a third of those evacuees were displaced in Butte County alone, north of the capital Sacramento, where the North Complex wildfire has scorched more than 247,000 acres and destroyed over 2,000 homes and structures.
The remains of three victims were found in two separate locations of that fire zone, according to Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea, bringing the total death toll from this summer’s devastating spate of California wildfires to at least 11.
Another person died in Siskiyou County in Northern California, state fire authority Cal Fire reported, providing no further details.
Wildfires have now burned over 3.1 million acres in California in 2020, marking a record for any year, with six of the top 20 largest wildfires in state history occurring in 2020, state fire authorities reported on Thursday.
In Washington, a man and a woman were in critical condition with burns after their 1-year-old son died as they tried to escape the state’s largest wildfire burning in mountains about 100 miles northwest of Spokane, the Okanogan County Sheriff’s Office said in a statement.
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