US wildfires: Death toll rises as officials prepare for ‘mass fatality event’ in Oregon

Donald Trump to visit California as state hit by largest fires in its history

California governor Gavin Newsom tours communities devastated by a record wildfire season. Driven by high winds and unprecedented heat, wildfires have destroyed 2.3 million acres in the state this year, with peak season still to come. Video: Reuters

 

Search and rescue crews using dogs combed through neighbourhoods left in blackened ruins by massive wildfires burning across three states, and US president Donald Trump said he would travel to California to see the devastation first-hand.

Flames have destroyed thousands of homes and a half dozen small towns in the latest outbreak of wildfires that have raged across the western United States this summer, scorching a landscape the size of New Jersey and killing at least 31 people since early August.

But after four days of brutally hot, windy weather, the weekend brought calmer winds blowing inland from the Pacific Ocean, and cooler, moister conditions that helped crews make headway against blazes that had burned unchecked earlier in the week.

At least six people have been killed this week in Oregon, according to the state’s wildfire tracking website. Governor Kate Brown has said that dozens of people remained missing across three counties.

In California, tens of thousands of firefighters were battling 28 major wildfires as of Saturday afternoon, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. Improving weather conditions had helped them gain a measure of containment over most of the blazes.

Climate crisis

The White House said Mr Trump will meet local and federal officials in McClellan Park near the California state capital of Sacramento on Monday after travelling to Nevada for a fundraiser and a pair of rallies for his re-election campaign. He has been sharply critical of California in the past for allowing conditions that he says permit wildfires.

His Democratic opponent Joe Biden said in a statement on Saturday that the wildfires showed there was “no challenge more consequential to our future than meeting and defeating the onrushing climate crisis”.

The firestorms, some of the largest on record in California and Oregon, were driven by high winds that howled across the region for days in the midst of record-breaking heat. Scientists say global warming has also contributed to extremes in wet and dry seasons, causing vegetation to flourish then dry out, leaving more abundant fuel for wildfires.

Oregon state officials warned of possible “mass fatality incidents” as they searched scorched ruins for dozens of people who had been reported missing.

The Pacific northwest as a whole has borne the brunt of an incendiary onslaught that began around Labor Day, the first Monday in September, darkening the sky with smoke and ash that has beset northern California, Oregon and Washington with some of the world’s worst air-quality levels.

‘Perfect storm’

“This is a climate damn emergency. This is real and it’s happening. This is the perfect storm,” California governor Gavin Newsom told reporters on Friday from a charred mountainside near Oroville, California.

Damaged homes are seen in a mobile home park that was destroyed by wildfire in Ashland, Oregon. Photograph: David Ryder/Getty Images
Damaged homes are seen in a mobile home park that was destroyed by wildfire in Ashland, Oregon. Photograph: David Ryder/Getty Images

More than 4,000 homes and other structures have been incinerated in California alone over the past three weeks.

In southern Oregon, a scene of charred residential subdivisions and trailer parks stretched for miles along Highway 99 south of Medford through the neighbouring towns of Phoenix and Talent, one of the most devastated areas.

Molalla, a community about 40km south of downtown Portland, was deserted after its more than 9,000 residents were told to evacuate, with only 30 refusing to leave, the city’s fire department said.

The logging town was on the front line of a vast evacuation zone stretching north to within 5km of downtown Portland. The sheriff in suburban Clackamas County set a 10pm curfew to deter “possible increased criminal activity”.

In Portland, the Multnomah County sheriff chastised residents who had taken it upon themselves to set up checkpoints and stop cars after conspiracy theories spread that left-wing activists who oppose Mr Trump were starting some of the blazes, which local authorities say is groundless.

Mr Brown told a news conference that more than 500,000 people were under one of three evacuation alert levels, advising them to pack and be vigilant, to be ready to flee at a moment’s notice, or to leave immediately. About 40,000 of those had already been ordered to leave.

Break in the weather

After four days of treacherously hot, windy weather, a glimmer of hope arrived in the form of calmer winds blowing in from the ocean, bringing cooler, moister conditions that helped firefighters make headway against blazes that had burned largely unchecked earlier in the week.

The overall death toll from the Western fires that began in August jumped to 25 after seven people were reported killed in mountains north of Sacramento, California, and Oregon’s fifth fatality was reported in Marion County, outside of Salem, the state capital.

Paradise, a town blasted by California’s deadliest wildfire in 2018, posted the world’s worst air quality index reading at 592, according to the PurpleAir monitoring site, as two of the state’s largest blazes burned on either side of it. – Reuters

Conspiracy theories

In Portland, the Multnomah County Sheriff chastised residents who had set up their own checkpoints to stop cars after conspiracy theories spread on social media that members of Black Lives Matter or Antifa were lighting fires. Local officials have called those assertions groundless.

“We are removing false claims that the wildfires in Oregon were started by certain groups,” a Facebook spokesman said on Saturday. “This is based on confirmation from law enforcement that these rumors are forcing local fire and police agencies to divert resources from fighting the fires and protecting the public.” (Reporting by Deborah Bloom in Portland, Ore.; Additional reporting by Carlos Barria, Adrees Latif, Andrew Hay, Steve Gorman, Mimi Dwyer, Sharon Bernstein, Dan Whitcomb, Aishwarya Nair, Jonathan Allen, Andrea Shalal and Jeff Mason; Writing by Steve Gorman and Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Frances Kerry and Daniel Wallis)