About half a million people in the US state of Oregon have been told to evacuate their homes or prepare to, Governor Kate Brown said Friday, as dozens of extreme, wind-driven wildfires scorched West Coast states.
Brown was dialling back a statement late Thursday issued by the state Office of Emergency Management that said 500,000 people had been ordered to evacuate statewide, AP news agency reported.
More than 40,000 Oregon residents have been evacuated and dozens of people are missing as a result of the fires, the governor said, while the state’s emergency management director, Andrew Phelps, said officials are “preparing for a mass fatality event”.
The blazes raging across several US states have destroyed thousands of homes and killed at least 24 people, state and local authorities said.
In southern Oregon, an apocalyptic scene of burned residential subdivisions and trailer parks stretched for kilometres 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 went from wildfires burning through scrub and forest to suburban firestorms as flames jumped from house to house.
Online video from the Tacoma, Washington, area showed fires starting in a residential area and setting homes ablaze, with residents running from house to house to warn neighbours.
“Everybody out, everybody out!” a man screamed as firefighters tried to douse the 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 Thursday in torched mountain communities approximately 137km (85 miles) north of Sacramento, California, state fire authority Cal Fire reported.
In Oregon alone, the number of people under evacuation orders climbed to some 500,000 – about an eighth of the state’s total population – as Portland suburbs came under threat as two of the state’s biggest blazes merged into one, the state Office of Emergency Management said.
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.
Governor Kate Brown said Friday that dozens of people were missing across the state.
Thousands more people were ordered to get out of homes to the north and south in Washington and California.
“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 and flee the massive Creek Fire as it burned within a few kilometres of his home.
Oregon bore the brunt of nearly 100 major wildfires raging across Western states, with some 3,000 firefighters battling nearly 36 blazes and officials saying about twice as many people were needed.
Police have opened a criminal arson investigation into the Oregon fire that destroyed much of Phoenix and Talent and which started in Ashland near the border with California, Ashland Police Chief Tighe O’Meara said.
Dozens of homes were burned at the Bear Creek trailer park 15km (nine miles) south of Medford, where families returned to find ashes and torched cars, according to another Reuters photographer.
At least four Oregon police departments warned of “fake” online messages appearing to be from law enforcement that blamed left-wing anti-fascists and right-wing 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 and his grandmother was also thought to have died.
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 (900,000 acres) had burned, dwarfing the state’s annual 202,340-hectare (500,000-acre) average over the past decade.
“This will not be a one-time event,” Brown told a Thursday news conference. “We are feeling the acute impacts of climate change.”
More than 100 years of fire suppression by state and federal authorities has created a huge buildup of dead trees and undergrowth to fuel fires that have naturally burned in the West’s forests for aeons. 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, over 68,000 people were under evacuation orders, most from the North Complex of fires north of Sacramento, as the largest fire in state history, the August Complex, burned more than 299,470 hectares (740,000 acres).
Wildfires have burned more than 1.25 million hectares (3.1 million acres) in California so far this year, marking a record for any year, with six of the top 20 largest wildfires in state history occurring in the last nine months.