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Story by Oregon Herald staff
Published on Saturday September 12, 2020 - 5:55 AM

Oregon officials say they are preparing for a large number of deaths from this week's wildfires, with at least five people killed and dozens more missing amid blazes that have burned more than 1 million acres statewide.

The wildfires have put an estimated 500,000 residents, or over 10 percent of the state's population, under an evacuation warning or order. Gov. Kate Brown (D), who earlier this week described the wildfires as a "once-in-a-generation event," said Friday that about 40,000 people have evacuated.

Authorities are preparing for "a mass fatality incident based on what we know and the number of structures that have been lost," Andrew Phelps, director of the state's Office of Emergency Management (OEM), said Friday. Oregon defines a mass fatality incident as one that causes death and suffering "that cannot be met through usual individual and community resources."

Communities all along the West Coast have been battling wildfires affecting tens of millions of people — tearing through towns, forcing mass evacuations and fouling the air. Scientists call it a "compound disaster," in which many extreme events unfold at once, and have been warning such widespread destruction is the inevitable result of human-caused climate change.

In Washington state, Gov. Jay Inslee (D) said Friday that nearly 627,000 acres had burned in the state since Monday — creating Washington's "second-worst fire season" on record within just five days. "And these are just the active fires, not the ones that have already been contained and where recovery continues," Inslee said at a news conference.

A Northern California wildfire, the North Complex Fire, has burned through more than 250,000 acres of land and killed at least nine people, part of a brutal fire season that includes six of the 20 largest wildfires in the state's history. Butte County sheriff's officials said Friday that 19 people remain missing in the state's deadliest blaze this year.

"California, folks, is America fast forward," California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) said Friday at a news conference, the sky behind him hazy with smoke. "What we're experiencing right here is coming to [communities] all across the United States of America unless we get our act together on climate change."

In Oregon, the number of evacuees spiked Thursday when many residents left communities in Clackamas County, the state's third-most populous county, which borders Portland, said Paula Fasano Negele, a spokeswoman for the OEM.

Western wildfires: An "unprecedented' climate change fueled event, experts say

Those evacuations came after officials warned in a news conference that the Riverside Fire, which originated in Clackamas County, was expected to merge with another one of the state's largest wildfires, the Beachie Creek Fire of Marion County. Those two wildfires have scorched more than 300,000 acres at about zero percent containment, decimated homes and businesses, and left thousands displaced, according to the Oregon Department of Forestry.

"I'm here, and I still can't even fathom what's happening," Negele told The Washington Post early Friday.

The good news, Brown said Friday: The weather "fueling these fires over the past days has finally broken down," she said, meaning authorities expect some relief from cooler air and moisture in the coming days.

Brown also said her request for federal aid — firefighting resources, search and rescue aid and temporary housing for those displaced — has been approved.

Improving weather meant firefighters should be able to move from a defensive stance to an offensive one in the next few days, Doug Grafe, chief of fire protection at the Oregon Department of Forestry, said Friday at a news conference. He said fire officials were most concerned about 16 fires, some of which are likely to remain active until the heavy rains of late fall.

Grafe warned that the Riverside, Beachie Creek and Lionshead fires, which are burning east of Salem, are responsible for some of the state's "most dramatic fire growth."

"We have not seen the likes of this fire in this state integrated with our communities ever before," he said.

As the Beachie Creek and Riverside fires continued to move closer to each other on Friday, Holly Krake, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Forest Service, told the Statesman Journal that the convergence of smoke plumes from the fires could cause erratic wind shifts and other weather events. She said those conditions would make it harder for firefighters to combat the blaze and heighten the risk for people in the fire's path.

While the National Weather Service said air quality in the Portland area was expected to start gradually improving Friday after days of smoke, the situation there remained dire. Air quality monitoring website reported four of the five major cities worldwide with the most air pollution were on the western coast of North America: Portland, Ore., Seattle, Vancouver, B.C., and San Francisco.

Climate change means this wildfire season is here to stay
Wildfire season is a natural part of many ecosystems, but climate change has these fires burning hotter and longer throughout the year. (John Farrell/The Washington Post)

In addition to the wildfires, Oregon officials also battled misinformation about the cause of the blazes. Several law enforcement agencies went on social media to dispel rumors that far-left or far-right antagonists had purposely caused some of the outbreaks.