At least eight killed as wildfires scorch US West Coast

Smoke from various wildfires burning across Northern California shrouded San Francisco in darkness and an orange glow on Sept 9, 2020.
Smoke from various wildfires burning across Northern California shrouded San Francisco in darkness and an orange glow on Sept 9, 2020.PHOTO: AFP

TALENT, OREGON/EAGLE POINT, OREGON (REUTERS) – Dozens of extreme wind-driven wildfires burned through forests and towns in US West Coast states on Thursday (Sept 10), destroying hundreds of homes and killing at least eight people, authorities said.

In the past 48 hours, four people died from fires in California, while three 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.

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.

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 have succumbed after flames engulfed an area near Lyons, about 80km south of Portland, the Marion County Sheriff’s Office said.

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.

A Reuters photographer saw nearby small communities including Bear Lake Estates reduced to ashes as he drove south on Interstate 5 towards Ashland.

Some people counted their blessings after fleeing the Bear Creek trailer park where nearly every house burned.

“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 restaurant working 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 Governor Kate Brown said up to 40,000 people had evacuated across the state where 340,000ha had burned in the past three days, dwarfing Oregon’s average 200,000ha 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 in the US West, leaving more abundant, volatile fuel when fires .

CALIFORNIA AND WASHINGTON FIRES

In California, officials said some 64,000 people were under evacuation orders while crews battled 29 major fires across portions of the most populous US 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 100,000ha 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 1.2 million hectares 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 160km north-west of Spokane, the Okanogan County Sheriff’s Office said in a statement.