‘Evacuate now:’ Wildfires grow in Oregon as half a million flee
Deadly wildfires in heavily populated northwest Oregon were growing, with hundreds of thousands of people told to flee encroaching flames while residents to the south tearfully assessed their losses.
The number of people evacuated statewide because of fires rose to an estimated 500,000 — more than 10 per cent of the state’s 4.2 million people, the Oregon Office of Emergency Management reported late Thursday.
A fire approaching Molalla triggered a mandatory evacuation order for the community of about 9,000 people 48 kilometres south of Portland.
Inmates were being moved from a women’s prison less than 1.6 kilometres from Interstate 5 in Portland’s southern suburbs “out of an abundance of caution,” the Oregon Department of Corrections said.
With two large fires threatening to merge, some firefighters in Clackamas County, which includes Molalla, were told to disengage temporarily because of the danger.
To be clear, your firefighters are still working hard on the wildfires in Clackamas County. They are taking a “Tactical Pause” to allow firefighters to reposition get accountability & evaluate extreme fire conditions. We haven’t abandoned you & working hard to keep you safe. pic.twitter.com/WjFNsKHlnJ
Officials tried to reassure residents who abandoned their homes and law enforcement officials said police patrols would be stepped up to prevent looting.
“We haven’t abandoned you,” fire officials said.
‘I just watched everything burn’
Residents of the small Oregon town of Phoenix near the California state line walked through a scene of devastation after one of the state’s many wildfires wiped out much of their community.
A mobile-home park, houses and businesses were burned, leaving twisted remains on charred ground.
Many of the residents were immigrants with few resources to draw on.
WATCH | Unprecedented wildfires devastate Western states:
Artemio Guterrez stood helplessly next to his pick-up, surveying the rubble of his mobile home. His children sat quietly in the truck bed and waited for him to salvage what he could.
He found a ceramic pot with a smiley face on it, some charred miniature houses from a Christmas-themed village and a cross that formed when two pieces of glass melted together.
Guterrez, a single father of four, had been at work at a vineyard nearby when he saw thick smoke spreading through Rogue River Valley. He raced home just in time to snatch his kids from the trailer park where they live alongside dozens of other Mexican families. They got out only with the clothes they were wearing.
“I’m going to start all over again. It’s not easy but it’s not impossible either. You have to be a little tough in situations like this,” said Guterrez, who had just returned from his mother’s funeral in Mexico.
Entire mobile-home parks with many units occupied by Mexican immigrants who worked in nearby vineyards or doing construction were reduced to ash in Phoenix and nearby Talent.
“We’re kind of like a family. We’ve known each other for years, since we came here or even before then,” Guterrez said of his neighbours at Talent Mobile Estates. “We’re living day by day.”
Jonathan Weir defied evacuation orders as flames nine metres high shot from the trees. He drove his car to the entrance of a nearby mobile home park, where his tires began melting. His home was destroyed as the fire hopscotched through the town of 4,000 residents.
“There were flames across the street from me, flames to the right of me, flames to the left of me. I just watched everything burn,” Weir told a reporter.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency estimated that 600 homes were burned by the fire that started in Ashland and tore through Phoenix, the Mail Tribune of Medford reported.
At least 16 people have died in the wildfires across Oregon, Washington state and California, where hot, dry and windy weather combined to create near-perfect conditions for flames.
The small farming town of Malden in eastern Washington was mostly destroyed, losing its fire station, post office, city hall and library.
In California, thousands of homes were threatened Thursday after winds whipped a blaze into a monster that incinerated houses in a small mountain community and killed at least three people.
Experts say the California fires are growing bigger and moving faster than ever before.
Hundreds of thousands of hectares burned
Oregon officials were shocked by the number of simultaneous fires, which stood at 39 on Thursday morning, according to the state Office of Emergency Management.
Gov. Kate Brown said more than 364,000 hectares — greater than the size of Rhode Island — have burned across the state in the past three days — nearly double the territory that burns in a typical year.
She told a news conference that the exact number of fatalities was not yet known and tweeted that more than 80,000 people have fled their homes.
“We have never seen this amount of uncontained fire across the state,” she said.
Back in Phoenix, Jerry Walker fled in his pyjamas and only had time to grab some cash. He did not know if his apartment complex survived.
“I’ve never seen devastation like this ever in my life,” Walker said. “I don’t know how we’re going to recover.”
Phoenix City Councilman Al Muelhoefer said the north end of the town was gone but he had heard of no fatalities.
At least three people in Oregon were reported killed, including a boy and his grandmother, and several others critically burned. Deaths in Washington included a one-year-old boy.
Elsewhere, wildfires damaged towns in a canyon and the foothills of the Cascade mountains, where the remains of a boy and his dog were found. Flames also hit the coastal town of Lincoln City and Estacada, 48 kilometres southeast of Portland.
Fires also erupted along I-5, forcing a shutdown Wednesday of the main freeway along the West Coast. U.S. Highway 101, the main coastal highway running through California, Oregon and Washington, was affected, too.
Evacuees poured into the state fairgrounds in Salem, Ore., many bringing their animals.