TALENT, Ore./EAGLE POINT, Ore. (Reuters) – Dozens of extreme, wind-driven wildfires burned through forests and towns in U.S. West Coast states on Thursday, destroying hundreds of homes, killing at least nine people and forcing hundreds of thousands to flee, authorities said.
Over the past 48 hours, four people died from fires in California, while four were killed in Oregon and a 1-year-old boy died in Washington state, police reported.
The number of people under evacuation orders in Oregon alone climbed late in the day to some 500,000, about an eighth of the state’s total population, a spokeswoman for the state Office of Emergency Management said.
Thousands more were displaced north and south in the neighboring states of Washington and California.
Oregon has borne the brunt of nearly 100 major wildfires raging across the western United States this week. Around 3,000 firefighters have been battling nearly three dozen blazes in Oregon, and fire officials saying about twice as many personnel are needed to bring those conflagrations under control.
Police have opened a criminal arson investigation into at least one Oregon blaze, the Almeda Fire, which started in Ashland near the border with California and incinerated several hundred homes in adjacent communities along Bear Creek, Ashland Police Chief Tighe O’Meara said.
O’Meara said investigators were treating the origins of the Almeda fire as suspicious.
“We have good reason to believe that there was a human element to it, so we’re going to pursue it as a criminal investigation until we have reason to believe that it was otherwise,” he told Reuters.
O’Meara said he expected the death toll from the Almeda Fire, initially blamed for two of Oregon’s fatalities, to rise as search teams combed through the ruins of dwellings that burned in the midst of a chaotic evacuation.
The Oregon blazes tore through at least five 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.
In central Oregon search-and-rescue teams entered devastated 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-out car and his grandmother was believed to have succumbed after flames engulfed an area near Lyons, about 50 miles (80 km) south of Portland, the Marion County Sheriff’s Office said.
“EMBERS GOING FOR MILES”
To the south, a Reuters photographer saw small communities near the city of Medford, including Bear Lake Estates, reduced to ashes as he drove south on Interstate 5 toward 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, 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 some 900,000 acres had burned, dwarfing the state’s annual 500,000-acre average over the past decade.
“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 U.S. West, leaving more abundant, volatile fuel for fires.
By evening, two of Oregon’s largest fires, burning around 24 miles southeast of downtown Portland, had merged, leading to a major expansion of evacuations in densely populated Clackamas County, emergency management spokeswoman Bobbi Doan said.
Asked whether Portland’s metro areas might be evacuated, Chief Deputy State Fire Marshal Mariana Ruiz Temple said everything would depend on wind direction and force.
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 U.S. state.
About a third of those evacuees were displaced in Butte County alone, north of Sacramento, the capital, where the North Complex wildfire has scorched more than 247,000 acres 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 California wildfires so far this summer to at least 11.
A 12th person died in Siskiyou County in far northern California, state fire authority CalFire reported, providing no further details.
Wildfires have now burned over 3.1 million acres in California in 2020, marking a record for any year, with six of the top 20 largest wildfires in state history occurring in 2020.
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 100 miles northwest of Spokane, the Okanogan County Sheriff’s Office said in a statement.
(Reporting by Carlos Barria and Adrees Latif; additional reporting by Andrew Hay, Steve Gorman, Katie Paul and Sharon Bernstein; editing by Tom Brown and Leslie Adler)