“You just never believe it’s all going to go up in flames,” one southern Oregon resident told CNN affiliate KOBI. “It’s a lot to handle.”
The victims include a 1-year-old boy in Washington state and a teen in Oregon, who in his last moments huddled his dog inside a car that was engulfed in flames.
As wildfires rage, the air quality across the US West has dipped to unhealthy levels that could make people more vulnerable to Covid-19, doctors say.
The widespread devastation has a lot to do with climate change, state leaders and experts say, and things are likely not going to get any better.
In California, five of the top 10 largest wildfires in the state’s history are burning, according to the state’s governor.
“California is in the midst of an existential climate crisis. It was just two years ago that this area saw the deadliest wildfire in our history. Now, just a few miles away, another deadly wildfire has ripped through these same communities,” California Gov. Gavin Newsom said Friday. “There is no doubt — climate change is here, and it is happening faster than most had anticipated.”
On the front lines are thousands of firefighters who have so far had little help from weather — with high temperatures and winds fanning the flames. And officials say the flames won’t burn out any time soon.
At least eight of Oregon’s wildfires are expected to burn “until the winter’s rains fall,” Oregon Department of Forestry Fire Chief Doug Grafe said Friday.
Oregon officials prepare for ‘mass fatality incident’
Wildfires in Oregon have killed at least six people, and officials said Friday they’re preparing for a “mass fatality incident” based on how many structures have been charred.
“As we have more clarity and confirmation of structures that have been lost and fatalities, that information will be provided, but not until we can confirm that information with local fire and law enforcement resources,” Oregon Office of Emergency Management Director Andrew Phelps said.
Already, dozens are missing, the state’s governor said, mostly across Jackson, Lane and Marion Counties — all in the western portion of the state.
“More than 40,000 Oregonians have been evacuated, and approximately 500,000 Oregonians are currently in evacuation zones,” Gov Kate Brown said. “That means, 500,000 people are either at a level one, two or three evacuation alert,” she added.
In Lyons, a little more than 60 miles south of Portland, the Beachie Creek Fire left neighborhoods in rubble and has scorched more than 186,000 acres.
“We had 29 houses on our block,” Monica Garrison told CNN affiliate KATU. “We have 10 left.”
The Beachie Creek Fire is the largest in the state and is 0% contained, according to Oregon officials. Firefighters are racing to slow the blaze down before it merges with nearby Riverside Fire, which has grown to more than 130,000 acres and is 0% contained.
‘Never seen anything like this’
In California, at least 19 people have died since the fire season began. Firefighters are currently battling the more than two dozen major fires across the state, but officials expressed hope Friday that improving weather conditions will boost firefighters’ efforts to control the flames.
Fires in the state have burned more than 3.1 million acres so far, 26 times higher than what was burned by this time last year, according to Cal Fire. More than 3,900 structures have been destroyed this year, fire officials said.
The Creek Fire burning across the mountains of Central California has grown to more than 182,000 acres and is 6% contained. The North Complex Fire, burning in Plumas, Butte and Yuba counties has charred more than 252,000 acres and is about 23% contained.
Butte County officials confirmed at least two people have died — including a 16-year-old boy who was fleeing the area in his vehicle.
John Tripp, who evacuated his home in Butte County, says he has no idea what he’ll find when he returns.
“I’m from Miami. I’ve been through hurricanes. I’ve been through tornadoes. I’ve never seen anything like this,” he told CNN affiliate KCRA. “It’s just hard not knowing if you have anything.”
80% of buildings in eastern Washington town destroyed
Meanwhile, the past five days in Washington have made for the state’s second worst fire season in history, the governor said Friday. Sixteen major fires were burning in the state as of Friday.
“These are not just wildfires, they are climate fires and we cannot and we will not surrender our state,” Gov. Jay Inslee said during a Friday news conference.
“When I look in the eyes of people who lost their home and see their tears, I think these people deserve a response to try to protect them and to try to remove the threats.”
Inslee visited a small town in eastern Washington earlier this week that was devastated by the fires. Eighty percent of Malden’s buildings — including the fire station, post office, city hall and library — were completely destroyed.
“It looked like a bomb went off,” officials said, according to CNN affiliate KIRO.
Elsewhere in the state, a 1-year-old boy was killed and his parents were badly burned as they tried to escape the wildfire, officials said.
The family was visiting their property in a rural area west of Spokane and evacuated in the middle of the night when the wildfire got closer. They abandoned their vehicle and ran to a river to flee the menacing flames, CNN affiliate KCRA reported. The couple was rescued from the river but their son did not make it.