A fire engine from the Idanha-Detroit Rural Fire Protection District sits on Detroit Avenue Friday, Sept. 11, 2020, in Detroit, Ore. Photo: AP
The death toll from fires in California, Oregon and Washington soared to 31 and was expected to rise sharply.
Most of the fatalities were reported from California and Oregon, reports AP.
Wildfire smoke that posed a health hazard to millions choked the West Coast on Saturday as firefighters battled deadly blazes that obliterated some towns and displaced tens of thousands of people, the latest in a series of calamities this year.
For people already enduring the coronavirus pandemic, the resulting economic fallout and political tensions evident in the Black Lives Matter protests and far-right counter protests, the fires added a new layer of misery.
Oregon’s emergency management director said officials were preparing for a possible “mass fatality event” if many more bodies turn up in the ash.
The state fire marshal resigned after abruptly being placed on administrative leave. The state police superintendent said the crisis demanded an urgent response that required a leadership change.
A half-million Oregonians were under evacuation warnings or orders to leave. With air contamination levels at historic highs, people stuffed towels under door jambs to keep smoke out. Some even wore N95 masks in their own homes.
Some communities resembled the bombed-out cities of Europe after World War II, with buildings reduced to charred rubble piled atop blackened earth. Residents either managed to flee as the flames closed in, or perished.
In Oregon alone, more than 40,000 people have been evacuated and about 500,000 are in different levels of evacuation zones, Governor Kate Brown said.
In California, 28 active major fires have burned 4,375 square miles, and 16,000 firefighters are trying to suppress the flames, Cal Fire Assistant Deputy Director Daniel Berlant said. Large wildfires continued to burn in northeastern Washington state too.
In all, 22 people have died in California since wildfires began breaking out across the state in mid-August.
President Donald Trump will visit California on Monday for a briefing on the West Coast fires, the White House announced.
Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and the governors of California, Oregon and Washington state — all Democrats — have said the fires are a consequence of global warming.
“We absolutely must act now to avoid a future defined by an unending barrage of tragedies like the one American families are enduring across the West today,” Biden said.
The weather conditions that led up to the fires and fed the flames were likely a once-in-a-generation event, said Greg Jones, a professor and research climatologist at Linfield University in McMinnville, Oregon.
A large high-pressure area stretching from the desert Southwest to Alaska brought strong winds from the east toward the West Coast, reducing relative humidity to as low as 8 percent and bringing desert-like conditions, even to the coast, Jones said.
Instead of the offshore flows that the Pacific Northwest normally enjoys, the strong easterly winds pushed fires down the western slopes of the Cascade Range.
It isn't clear if global warming caused the conditions, Jones said, but a warmer world can increase the likelihood of extreme events and contribute to their severity.
Erik Tucker spent the day hauling buckets of water through what remained of his neighborhood to douse hot spots smoldering in tree trunks five days after the wildfire tore through the area.
Tucker, who lives in Lyons, Oregon, had expected the worst but found his family’s home still standing while homes just down the street were gone. He was coated in ash and smudged with charcoal.
“No power, debris everywhere, smoke, can’t breathe,” he said.