US wildfires: Some 500,000 told to evacuate in Oregon as total death toll rises to 24

Thousands of homes are destroyed as American west coast is besieged by blazes

Mormon Lake Hotshots firefighter Sara Sweeney uses a drip torch to set a backfire to protect mountain communities from the Bobcat Fire in the Angeles National Forest  in California. Photograph: David McNew/Getty Images

Mormon Lake Hotshots firefighter Sara Sweeney uses a drip torch to set a backfire to protect mountain communities from the Bobcat Fire in the Angeles National Forest in California. Photograph: David McNew/Getty Images


About half a million people in Oregon were ordered to evacuate as dozens of extreme, wind-driven wildfires scorched US west coast states on Friday, destroying thousands of homes and killing at least 24 people, state and local authorities said.

In southern Oregon, an apocalyptic scene of burned residential subdivisions and trailer parks stretched for miles along Highway 99 south of Medford through Phoenix and Talent, one of the worst-hit areas, according to a Reuters photographer at the scene.

Blazes jumped from wildfires burning through scrub and forest to suburban firestorms as flames jumped from house to house.

Online video from the Tacoma area in Washington showed fires starting in a residential area and setting homes ablaze, and locals running from house to house to warn neighbours. “Everybody out, everybody out!” a man is heard screaming as firefighters try to douse flames.

The death toll from the siege of fires on the west coast that began in August jumped to 24 after seven people were found dead late on Thursday in torched mountain communities about 137km north of Sacramento, California.

In Oregon alone the number of people under evacuation orders climbed to some 500,000 – about one-eighth of the state’s total population – as Portland suburbs came under threat as two of the state’s biggest blazes merged into one, according to the Oregon Office of Emergency Management.

In southern Oregon, residents in communities such as Eagle Point were under evacuation orders, but few left their homes, most staying until they could actually see flames, the Reuters photographer said.

Thousands more people were ordered to get out of homes to the north and south in Washington and California.

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“We had four hours to pack up our pets and a few medications and things like that,” said retiree John Maylone, from an evacuation centre in Fresno, California, after he was forced to leave three of his 30 cats as he fled the massive Creek Fire as it burned within a few kilometres of his home.

Oregon bore the brunt of the nearly 100 major wildfires raging across western states, with about 3,000 firefighters battling nearly three dozen blazes there and officials saying about twice as many people were needed.

Arson investigation

Police have opened a criminal arson investigation into the Oregon fire that destroyed much of Phoenix and Talent and started in Ashland near the border with California, Ashland police chief Tighe O’Meara said.

At least four Oregon police departments warned of “fake” online messages appearing to be from law enforcement that blamed left-wing anti-fascists and far-right Proud Boy activists for starting the fires.

The Oregon blazes tore through multiple communities in the Cascade mountain range, as well as areas of coastal rainforest normally spared from wildfires. In eastern Washington state, a fire destroyed most of the tiny farming town of Malden.

Search-and-rescue teams entered devastated communities in central Oregon’s Santiam valley to look for missing people after a 12-year-old boy was found dead with his dog in a burned-out car.

Firefighters said unusually hot, dry winds out of the east created firestorms that spread embers from community to community, and then from house to house.

Oregon governor Kate Brown said some 364,220 hectares had burned in the recent fires, dwarfing the state’s annual 202,340-hectare average over the past decade.

“This will not be a onetime event,” Ms Brown told a Thursday news conference. “We are feeling the acute impacts of climate change.”

Fuel for fires

More than 100 years of fire suppression by state and federal authorities has created a huge build-up of dead trees and undergrowth to fuel fires that have naturally burned in the west coast’s forests for eons. In recent decades Americans have built houses in those forests as second homes or due to rising prices in metropolitan areas like San Francisco, Portland and Seattle.

Scientists say climate change has contributed to greater extremes in wet and dry seasons, causing vegetation to flourish then dry out, leaving more abundant, volatile fuel for fires.

In California, the US’s most populous state, more than 68,000 people were under evacuation orders, most due to the North Complex of fires north of Sacramento, as the largest fire in state history, the August Complex, burned more than 299,470 hectares.

Wildfires have burned more than 1.25 million hectares in California so far this year, marking a record for any year, with six of the top 20 largest wildfires in the state’s history occurring in the last nine months.– Reuters