Oregon and California brace for a rising death toll.
The governors of California and Oregon delivered blunt and alarming details on Friday about the massive wildfires that have consumed millions of acres across their two states and Washington, killing at least 17 people. State leaders also braced for that death toll to increase, with an Oregon official saying the state was preparing for a “mass fatality incident.”
Oregon, Washington and California are enduring a wildfire season of historic proportions, with the firefighting effort compounded by the coronavirus pandemic and misinformation online.
But as residents readied themselves for more pain, they also looked to the skies and hoped that changing weather might help them this weekend in their fight. Doug Grafe, chief of Fire Protection for the Oregon Department of Forestry, said that the strong winds that had spread the fires had dissipated, and that cooler temperatures and higher humidity would help fire crews move “from just life safety to the offense” in fighting the blazes.
Gov. Gavin Newsom of California also noted the dying winds and said that a “modest amount” of precipitation could be on the way in his state.
In her news conference, Gov. Kate Brown of Oregon noted that well over 1 million acres of land — over 1,500 square miles — has been burned in the state and that the state’s air quality ranks the worst in the world. “Almost anywhere in the state you can feel this right now,” she said.
More than 40,000 Oregonians have already been evacuated, and about 500,000 are in zones that may be evacuated as the fires continue to grow. Mayor Ted Wheeler of Portland declared a state of emergency on Thursday night, and residents of Molalla, about 30 miles to the south, packed highways as they fled from the approaching fires.
But tragedy has already befallen some, with towns like Talent and Phoenix all but obliterated. Andrew Phelps, director of the Oregon Office of Emergency Management, said mass casualties were a possibility “based on what we know and the numbers of structures that have been lost.”
Three new deaths in Oregon were reported on Friday: Officials in Marion County located two additional victims from the Beachie Creek Fire east of Salem, and crews found a victim in a residence within the perimeter of the Holiday Farm Fire east of Eugene.
Sheriff Kory Honea of Butte County, Calif., lowered the death toll of the Bear Fire north of Sacramento to nine, saying that deputies had mistakenly identified an anatomical model of a skeleton as human remains.
In California, where more than three million acres have burned, Mr. Newsom held a surreal livestreamed news conference, speaking among charred trees in the midst of a yellowish, smoky haze left by the raging North Complex Fires.
To his west, the August Complex Fire — which this week became the largest in the state’s history — had now burned across 747,000 acres, Mr. Newsom said.
Mr. Newsom, who said he feared that more bodies would be found, emphasized the unprecedented scale of the challenges facing firefighters, who have been strained by enormous blazes up and down the coast.
“It’s just something we’ve never seen in our lifetime,” Mr. Newsom said.
Mr. Newsom said he spoke with President Trump for about a half an hour on Thursday about the fires and said the president “enforced his commitment” to sending aid for both businesses and individuals.
While the governor acknowledged that poor forest management over decades has contributed to the severity of wildfires, he said that mega-droughts and record heat waves are evidence that the most dire predictions about climate change have already arrived.
While California, he said, was investing in green technology and regulating vehicle emissions, the fires ravaging the entire West Coast were a grim preview of what the rest of the country may soon face if policies and priorities did not change nationally.
“California is America in fast forward,” he said. “What we’re experiencing right now is coming to communities all across the country.”
False rumors are complicating the fight against the fires around Portland.
Every natural disaster has its holdouts. But the political fear-stoking that accompanied a tumultuous summer of racial-justice protests in Oregon has become a volatile new complication in the catastrophic wildfires that pushed closer to Portland on Friday, as authorities try to evacuate thousands of people.
Law-enforcement officials across the state said they had been swamped with calls about social-media misinformation and begged people to “STOP. SPREADING. RUMORS!” In the line of fire, the swirl of rumors actually helped goad some people into defying evacuation orders so they could stay and guard their homes.
As a Level 3 evacuation on Thursday urged people to “leave now,” an eerie stillness fell over Molalla, an old timber town of 9,000 an hour’s drive south of Portland, and the holdout residents girded themselves for two threats. One was the very real 125,000-acre Riverside Fire burning just east of town. The other was the imagined invasion of left-wing mobs and arsonists that multiple law-enforcement agencies have sought to refute.
Residents who remained hosed down their roofs and soaked their lawns. They organized go-bags of baby supplies and clothes, just in case. They scouted for unfamiliar cars on the roads.
“I’m protecting my city,” Troy McNeeley said as he stood in front of the 900-square foot home he shares with his son, his son’s partner and several cats. “If I see people doing crap, I’m going to hurt them.”
The rumors played into some conservative residents’ fears and anger over months of protests in Portland, where left-wing and right-wing groups have occasionally clashed.
On Wednesday, the police in Portland warned protesters about lighting fires — a seemingly innocuous public-safety message that was followed by waves of rumor about arsonists and mayhem. Sheriff’s offices and fire departments already coping with wildfires that have consumed 900,000 acres were flooded with phone calls.
“We are inundated with questions about things that are FAKE stories,” the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office in Medford posted on Facebook. “One example is a story circulating that varies about what group is involved as to setting fires and arrests being made. THIS IS NOT TRUE!”
Law-enforcement agencies in southern Oregon announced on Thursday that they had begun to investigate whether the Almeda fire had been deliberately set. The fire has burned hundreds of homes around Medford and is tied to two deaths. But the police chief of Ashland told The Oregonian that there was no evidence pointing to anti-fascist activists.
A man is charged with arson in a southern Oregon blaze.
Authorities in southern Oregon charged a 41-year-old man with starting part of one of this year’s most destructive fires, saying he lit the fire in a small Oregon town as a larger blaze moved toward the area.
The Jackson County Sheriff’s Office said the Almeda Fire started around 11 a.m. on Tuesday in Ashland, Ore., and then began spreading north along Interstate 5. Around 5 p.m., residents reported that a man had started a fire in Phoenix, a town of about 4,500 people just north of Ashland that was under orders to evacuate, authorities said.
The Sheriff’s Office said police officers discovered Michael Jarrod Bakkela at the scene, denying that he started the large fire nearby. Police arrested him on a parole violation.
On Friday, the Jackson County district attorney charged him with arson, criminal mischief and reckless endangering.
Mr. Bakkela, who could not be reached, had not yet been appointed a lawyer, said Beth Heckert, the county’s district attorney. He was scheduled to be arraigned in court on Monday, she said.
Mike Moran, a public information officer for the Jackson County sheriff, said Mr. Bakkela had a criminal record and was well known to local law enforcement. A news release from the Sheriff’s Office described him as “a local transient.”
While many wildfires on the West Coast this year have burned through remote areas and parts of rural communities, the Almeda Fire hit a series of towns along the freeway in southern Oregon, destroying an estimated 500 homes and 100 businesses. Mr. Moran said authorities were still investigating the fire’s initial point of origin in Ashland. He said that they suspected arson there, too, and that they found the remains of one man near the fire’s start.
Climate change is a real and urgent threat in California.
Multiple mega fires burning more than three million acres. Millions of residents smothered in toxic air. Rolling blackouts and triple-digit heat waves. Climate change, in the words of one scientist, is smacking California in the face.
The crisis in the nation’s most populous state is more than just an accumulation of individual catastrophes. It is also an example of something climate experts have long worried about, but which few expected to see so soon: a cascade effect, in which a series of disasters overlap, triggering or amplifying each other.
“You’re toppling dominoes in ways that Americans haven’t imagined,” said Roy Wright, who directed resilience programs for the Federal Emergency Management Agency until 2018 and grew up in Vacaville, Calif., near one of this year’s largest fires. “It’s apocalyptic.”
The same could be said for the entire West Coast this week, to Washington and Oregon, where towns were decimated by infernos as firefighters were stretched to their limits.
California’s simultaneous crises illustrate how the ripple effect works. A scorching summer led to dry conditions never before experienced. That aridity helped make the season’s wildfires the biggest ever recorded. Six of the 20 largest wildfires in modern California history have occurred this year.
If climate change was a somewhat abstract notion a decade ago, today it is all too real for Californians. The intensely hot wildfires are not only chasing thousands of people from their homes but causing dangerous chemicals to leach into drinking water. Excessive heat warnings and suffocating smoky air have threatened the health of people already struggling during the pandemic. And the threat of more wildfires has led insurance companies to cancel homeowner policies and the state’s main utility to shut off power to tens of thousands of people pre-emptively.
‘This is a fathomless loss’: Some searches for the missing end in tragedy.
As the blazes rage across California, Oregon and Washington, family and friends are desperately searched for missing loved ones who remained unaccounted for.
Zygy Roe-Zurz, whose family lives in Berry Creek, Calif., said he had been waiting for days for news from his mother, his aunt and his uncle. On Thursday, he learned that his aunt was killed as the Bear Fire ripped through the community, and that his mother remained missing. Authorities told the family that Mr. Roe-Zurz’s uncle was likely dead as well, he said.
“I feel barren — this is a fathomless loss and I will never be the same,” said Mr. Roe-Zurz, 37, who is in Arkansas and last spoke to his mother on Tuesday night, before the flames intensified. “This cruel fire took everything.”
He said that his family members staying at the property in Berry Creek had been under the impression that the fire was getting under control, but that the situation changed dramatically as the Bear Fire jumped an astonishing 230,000 acres overnight Tuesday into Wednesday.
“It’s pretty much a nightmare scenario,” Mr. Roe-Zurz said. “I’m devastated.”
There was better news for other families who found out that loved ones they believed to be missing were found safe on Thursday.
Katy Carmel said her daughter, Natalie Anderson, had been on a camping trip with her boyfriend near the McKenzie Bridge east of Eugene, Ore. But when the Holiday Farm Fire broke out on Monday evening, Ms. Carmel could no longer reach Ms. Anderson.
Ms. Carmel could not sleep, fearing the worst. Days passed and the anxiety built. On Thursday, authorities notified the families that both Ms. Anderson and her boyfriend, Enmanuel Rodriguez, were safe and evacuated.
Ms. Carmel said she was relieved to hear the news, but added, “I’ll be better once she’s actually home.”
Getting prisoners out of harm’s way raises the risk of spreading the coronavirus.
Officials in Oregon’s state corrections system this week began moving hundreds of inmates out of the path of the wildfires creeping toward some of their prisons. But the introduction of large groups of prisoners into different facilities may be exposing them to another risk — contracting the coronavirus.
Juan Chavez, a lawyer with the Oregon Justice Resource Center, a nonprofit legal advocacy group, said that relocated inmates were sleeping on mattresses crammed close together, but it’s “picking your poison.”
“You have two crises that are stacked on top of each other — Covid-19 and these fires — and they’re out of good options,” Mr. Chavez said. He added that he fears the relocated inmates could contribute to a superspreader event for the virus in the prisons.
But few other options exist for the Oregon Department of Corrections, which has evacuated four prisons so far.
As the Beachie Creek and Lionshead wildfires raged in an area southeast of Portland, officials hastily relocated 1,450 inmates from three prisons in Marion County — Oregon State Correctional Institution, Santiam Correctional Institution and Mill Creek Correctional Facility. Inmates were moved west, to emergency beds in the Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem on Tuesday, according to the agency.
On Thursday officials sent 1,303 inmates from Coffee Creek Correctional Facility, a prison north of Salem in Wilsonville, to the Deer Ridge Correctional Institute more than 100 miles to the southeast, said Jennifer Black, a spokeswoman for the prison system.
Those inmates were moved to avoid a third blaze, the Riverside wildfire, which is north of the Beachie Creek and Lionshead wildfires. Each of the three blazes is more than 100,000 acres in size.
Inmates will be “housed with others from their home institution whenever possible,” and officials are aware of the potential coronavirus spread, Ms. Black said.
“We are taking all available steps to mitigate that impact,” Ms. Black said. “As we have said from the beginning, prisons were not constructed to allow for optimal social distancing.”
The coronavirus has already ravaged the state prison population. In June, Gov. Kate Brown of Oregon commuted the sentences of 57 inmates who were vulnerable to the coronavirus. There have been 829 confirmed coronavirus cases in prison system facilities, including staff members and inmates, according to the department’s records. Six people have died.
At the Oregon State Penitentiary, 36 staff members and 143 inmates have tested positive for the virus.
States are in a desperate search for help battling the fires.
As wildfires began consuming communities across Oregon this week, leaders at the state emergency management office fired off an email to counterparts around the country, pleading for 10 firefighting strike teams that could bring 50 extra engines to the region.
The state got one commitment: Utah would send a team with five engines.
Facing a historic year of wildfire destruction across the West Coast, including more than three million acres consumed in California, the national emergency systems that rely on state-to-state assistance have been buckling under the strain. That has left emergency responders struggling to keep pace with fires that have destroyed entire towns and led to at least 17 deaths, with seven more people found dead on Thursday from a fire north of Sacramento.
“I don’t know that we have any fires where we can say we have got enough resources to do what we need to do,” Andrew Phelps, the director of the Oregon Office of Emergency Management, said.
Fires continued to rage in southern Oregon, where hundreds of homes have been razed, as well as east of Salem, where two bodies have been found, and along the state’s coast. More than 900,000 acres have burned, nearly double a typical season. Hundreds of thousands of people have been ordered to evacuate, including parts of the Portland suburbs, where fires were still on the move.
In California, firefighters continued to battle the blazes of a remarkable wildfire season, including the August Complex burning in the Mendocino National Forest that is now the largest fire in the state’s recorded history.
In Washington, hundreds of homes and other structures were at risk of wildfires that continued to burn, even as a deadly stretch of dry winds from the East began to ease. Hilary Franz, the state’s commissioner of public lands, said the state was searching for help from elsewhere in the country.
So many state aid requests have gone to the National Multi-Agency Coordinating Group, which helps direct wildfire resources, that the group has been left to decide which ones get priority. Dan Smith, a member of the group who is also fire director for the National Association of State Foresters, said that as of Thursday morning there were over 300 requests for support that could not be fulfilled.
On Friday, Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas said around 190 more firefighters, 50 more fire trucks and 10 command vehicles from 56 fire departments across Texas were set to be deployed to California. The state had already sent 44 firefighters, 10 fire trucks and two command vehicles to California late last month.
Wildfire smoke is dangerous to your health. Here’s how to protect yourself.
Smoke from wildfires, which can include toxic substances from burned buildings, has been linked to serious health problems.
Studies have shown that when waves of smoke hit the rate of hospital visits rises and many of the additional patients experience respiratory problems, heart attacks and strokes.
The health effects of wildfire smoke don’t go away when skies clear. A recent study on Montana residents suggested a long tail for wildfire smoke exposure.
Erin Landguth, an associate professor in the school of public and community health science at the University of Montana and the lead author on the study, said research had shown that “after bad fire seasons, one would expect to see three to five times worse flu seasons” months later.
If you can’t leave an area that has high levels of smoke, the C.D.C. recommends limiting exposure by staying indoors with windows and doors closed and running air-conditioners in recirculation mode so that outside air isn’t drawn into your home.
Portable air purifiers are also recommended, though, like air-conditioners, they require electricity. If utilities cut off power, as has happened in California, those options are limited.
If you do have power, avoid frying food, which can increase indoor smoke.
Experts say it is especially important to avoid cigarettes. They also recommend avoiding strenuous outdoor activities when the air is bad. When outside, well-fitted N95 masks are also recommended, though they are in short supply because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Some other masks, particularly tightly woven ones made of different layers of fabric, can provide “pretty good filtration,” if they are fitted closely to the face, said Sarah Henderson, senior scientist in environmental health services at the British Columbia Center for Disease Control.
Reporting was contributed by Davey Alba, Tim Arango, Mike Baker, Kate Conger, Jill Cowan, Richard Fausset, Marie Fazio, Christopher Flavelle, Thomas Fuller, Jack Healy, Giulia McDonnell Nieto del Rio, Jack Nicas, Bryan Pietsch, John Schwartz, Will Wright and Alan Yuhas.