US wildfires: Search crews deployed in Oregon amid warnings of mass casualties

Over two dozen killed and thousands of homes destroyed in west from blazes

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 teams, with dogs in tow, were deployed across the blackened ruins of southern Oregon towns on Sunday as smouldering wildfires continue to ravage the US west and officials warn of mass casualties.

A blitz of wildfires across Oregon, California and Washington has destroyed thousands of homes and a half dozen small towns this summer, scorching a landscape the size of New Jersey and killing more than two dozen people since early August.

Crews in Jackson County, Oregon, were hoping to venture into rural areas where the Alameda Fire has abated slightly with slowing winds, sending up thick plumes of smoke as the embers burned. From Medford through the neighbouring communities of Phoenix and Talent, an apocalyptic scene of charred residential subdivisions and trailer parks stretched for miles along Highway 99.

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.

Still, emergency officials worried that the shifting weather might not be enough to quell the fires.

“We’re concerned that the incoming front is not going to provide a lot of rain here in the Medford region and it’s going to bring increased winds,” Bureau of Land Management spokesman Kyle Sullivan said on Sunday.

Missing people

At least 10 people have been killed in Oregon, according to the office of emergency management. Brown has said that dozens of people remained missing across three counties.

The director of Oregon’s office of emergency management, Andrew Phelps, said authorities were bracing for the possibility of “mass fatality” incidents.

“There are going to be a number of fatalities, folks that just couldn’t get warning in time and couldn’t evacuate their homes and get to safety,” Mr Phelps told MSNBC on Friday.

There were 35 active fires burning in Oregon as of Sunday morning, according to the state’s office of emergency management website.

Thick smoke and ash from the fires has darkened the sky over the Pacific northwest since Labour Day, creating some of the world’s worst air-quality levels and driving residents indoors.

Drought conditions, extreme temperatures and high winds in Oregon created the “perfect firestorm” for the blazes to grow, governor Kate Brown told CBS’ Face the Nation on Sunday.

Wake-up call

“This is a wake-up call for all of us that we’ve got to do everything in our power to tackle climate change,” Ms Brown said.

Her comments echoed California governor Gavin Newsom’s statement on Friday that the fires should end all debate about the impact of climate change. Mr Newsom appeared to direct at least some of his remarks at US president Donald Trump.

Mr Trump, a Republican, was scheduled to travel to California and meet with federal and state officials on Monday. He has said that western governors bear some of the blame for intense fire seasons in recent years, as opposed to warming temperatures, and has accused them of poor forest management.

In California, nearly 17,000 firefighters were battling 29 major wildfires on Sunday, 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.

More than 4,000 homes and other structures have been incinerated in California alone over the past three weeks. Three million acres of land have been burned in the state, according to the state’s department of forestry and fire protection.

– Reuters