HAPPY VALLEY, Ore. – Wildfires across the West Coast have killed at least 19 people in California and have ravaged more than a million acres of land in Oregon, where dozens of people were missing and tens of thousands of residents evacuated their homes amid some of the most dangerous air conditions in the world.
Oregon officials said they believe the wildfires could have claimed numerous lives because of how many structures have burned, but they said a death toll is unclear as they began to survey the destruction. Fires continued to rip through more than 1,500 square miles in the state on Friday.
“We know we’re dealing with fire-related death, and we’re preparing for a mass fatality incident based on what we know and the number of structures that have been lost,” said Andrew Phelps, director of Oregon’s Office of Emergency Management. Phelps said he could not confirm how many deaths had occurred from the fires, but a state-run dashboard recorded at least five fatalities.
After days of high temperatures and dry winds, cooler weather on Friday allowed firefighters to begin to contain some of the 16 fires across the state. But they had barely begun to make headway when dense smoke limited firefighters’ ability to fly, said Doug Grafe, chief of fire protection for the Oregon Department of Forestry. Eight of the 16 fires will be on the map until fall rains arrive, Grafe said.
A cluster of fires grew dramatically across a swath of 56 miles southeast of Portland, burning about 440,000 acres in an area of the state unaccustomed to wildfires of this magnitude, Grafe said. A blanket of smoke covered the sky even in downtown Portland, where officials opened up the Oregon Convention Center for evacuees.
“We have not seen the likes of this fire in this state, this integrated with our communities, ever before,” Grafe said. “We have a tremendous workload ahead of us.”
As fire officials expected the two massive blazes – the Riverside Fire and Beachie Creek Fire – to merge late in the week, the state evacuated than 40,000 residents. Officials also put about 500,000 residents – more than 10 percent of the state’s population – under an evacuation order or warning.
And here in Clackamas County, the state’s third-most populous county, thousands of residents were thrown into confusion and chaos as they sought safe places to stay in the midst of a global pandemic. Some fled their homes to evacuation sites only to learn they had already been filled, or to later be evacuated from those shelters due to nearing fires.
By Friday, scores of families continued to sleep in cars, RVs and tents in parking lots across the state, even as the temperatures dropped into the 50s and weather experts warned residents to stay indoors to escape dangerous air conditions.
Among them were Maria Juarez, 74, and her daughter Guadalupe Juarez, 30, who sat in lawn chairs in the thick smoke in the parking lot of the Clackamas Town Center, an evacuation site just a half-hour outside of Portland. The two women, who are both on dialysis, fled their homes in Estacada on Thursday as fire officials warned the blazes were inching closer to their town.
Along with Juarez’s husband and other daughter, they rushed to a community college nearby serving as an evacuation site. But they were told they would have to go elsewhere, since those at the site had been forced to evacuate, too.
“They threw us out, like cats and dogs,” Juarez said.
They almost slept in their cars in the parking lot at the Clackamas Town Center on Thursday night, until a stranger offered to unload his boat from his trailer so the family could sleep inside of it. The family had no way of getting to the evacuation site in Portland, because Juarez’s husband had to use the family car to drive to work at a meat company on Friday.
“I’ve lived in this country for three decades and I’ve never had something like this happen to me, in the street with no place to sleep,” Juarez said, bundled under donated blankets.
Guadalupe Juarez, who is partially blind, said she no longer trusts the government. She was convinced they might have to evacuate yet another parking lot.
“It’s like playing tag, or hide-and-seek,” she said. “All we can do now is pray, pray that God hears us.”
Dozens of Oregonians were reported missing as the fires swept through communities, authorities said, including small towns in southern Oregon’s Jackson County, which saw hundreds of homes and businesses destroyed by blazes early in the week. On Friday afternoon, Jackson County Sheriff Nathan Sickler announced arson charges against a 41-year-old man in connection to at least one portion of the Almeda fire that tore through the county.
In Northern California, a wildfire that has burned through more than 250,000 acres of land has now killed at least 10 people. Butte County sheriff’s officials confirmed seven additional deaths from the North Complex Fire on Thursday and said 16 people remain missing in the state’s most deadly blaze this year. A total of 19 people have died in California wildfires in 2020, fire officials said Friday.
President Donald Trump has approved Oregon’s request for an emergency declaration, which will include federal aid from FEMA to provide temporary housing for displaced residents and additional firefighting resources.
Oregon officials also found themselves battling misinformation about the cause of the blazes. Several law enforcement agencies went on social media to dispel rumors that far-left or far-right antagonists had purposely caused some of the outbreaks.
“Conspiracy theories and misinformation take valuable resources away from local fire and police agencies working around-the-clock to bring these fires under control,” the FBI in Portland tweeted Friday.
Residents fleeing fires in Clackamas County said they struggled to find information about evacuation orders and sites, especially as they slept in cars in parking lots without access to their usual news outlets. At the Clackamas County Fairgrounds in Canby, which was accepting evacuees with livestock, families came and went Thursday in a state of uncertainty after an official incorrectly told reporters that the site was evacuating.
Bill Kimball, 63, of Molalla, was staying with his family in an RV at the fairgrounds, which also housed their llamas, pigs and goats. He said he already had lost trust in his elected officials after seeing their response to the ongoing protests in Portland.
“Even our government has no control over anything. Look at Portland, there’s no control,” Kimball said. ” The covid thing turned us upside down, and now this.”
Sandra Contreras, 28, said she was worried about the rumors of looting back in Molalla as she walked around the Clackamas Town Center parking lot informing other evacuees that Taco Bell was donating food. She feared being separated from her family members, so she spent the past two nights sleeping in her car beside their packed RV.
“It’s been very confusing,” Contreras said. “I feel like they haven’t been telling us what’s going on.”
A few rows away in the parking lot, Jordan Justice’s children sat on the ground drawing and painting in coloring books; her 4-year-old daughter sat on the back of her car eating a plate of pancakes. Unable to find room for their 10 family members in a shelter the night before, the family stretched a tarp over their cars and created a makeshift tent.
Justice and her sister huddled close with their six children, sleeping only on blankets on the ground. Justice cried on and off throughout the night, worried about her 5-year-old daughter with asthma, who was sleeping outside in the smoky air. As the temperatures dropped overnight, the children were shivering.
On Friday morning, a stranger in the parking lot offered them a 10-person tent and told them: “Wherever you end up tonight, it’s yours.” In fear of being separated, the family planned to spend another night together in the parking lot.
“This is our family. We don’t have family to stay with . . . we don’t have the luxury of renting an RV,” Justice said. “We had nowhere to go.”
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Bella and Iati reported from Washington, D.C.
Video: http://www.washingtonpost.com/video/local/weather/climate-change-means-this-wildfire-season-is-here-to-stay/2020/09/10/d30eedb4-a1f2-423f-aca5-13a1021ca9eb_video.html(REF:farrellj2/The Washington Post)
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