Dozens missing in Oregon as historic fires devastate western US
Dozens of people are missing and at least 23 people are believed to have been killed as historic wildfires in the western US forced evacuations, stretched fire crews thin and spawned misinformation.
Residents of Portland, Oregon, awoke on Friday to air thick with smoke pollution that dimmed the sun and turned the skies blood-orange red. Hundreds of firefighters are battling two large wildfires that threatened to merge near the most populated part of Oregon, including the suburbs of Portland, and the governor said dozens of people are missing in other parts of the state.
The state’s emergency management director, Andrew Phelps, said officials are preparing for a “mass fatality event” and that thousands of structures have been destroyed. Oregon’s governor, Kate Brown, said more than 40,000 Oregonians have been evacuated and about half a million people are under some form of evacuation order.
Historic fires are raging in the western US. In the worst-affected states of California, Oregon and Washington, almost 100 fires have consumed record areas of landscape amid tinder-dry conditions and high temperatures exacerbated by the climate crisis.
Portland’s mayor, Ted Wheeler, declared a fire emergency, allowing him to activate evacuation centers, make special provision for the city’s homeless population and close the city’s famed Forest Park and other large green nature areas, where trees can fuel the fires. Portland was named the city with the world’s worst air quality on Friday, according to the website IQAir.
South of the city, fires are moving so fast that some people who were evacuated and went to a shelter had to be evacuated again.
Not far from Portland, firefighters on Friday were concerned that the giant Riverside fire near the evacuated town of Molalla, which has already burned 125,000 acres on the west slope of the Cascade mountains, might merge with the deadly Beechie Creek fire.
That latter fire is immediately to the south, and has already burned 182,000 acres, destroyed the lakeside town of Detroit, killing a 12-year-old boy and his grandmother, who were attempting to flee its flames.
Authorities in the state are also struggling to handle a deluge of misinformation about the fires, as people spread unsubstantiated social media posts blaming coordinated groups of arsonists from both the far left and far right for setting the blazes.
The FBI said Friday that it’s investigated several claims and found them to be untrue, while officials in Oregon and Washington state have turned to Facebook to knock down the competing narratives, with some posts blaming Antifa activists and others claimed the far-right group the Proud Boys was responsible for starting the fires.
“Reports that extremists are setting wildfires in Oregon are untrue,” FBI Portland tweeted on Friday. “Help us stop the spread of misinformation by only sharing information from trusted, official sources.”
Meanwhile in Washington state, an exhausted firefighter wrote on a local firefighters’ union Facebook page about the difficulty of having to fight both the blazes and an onslaught of rapidly-spreading false information.
“There is nothing to show its Antifa, or Proud Boys setting fires. Wait for information,” he wrote. “[Facebook] is an absolute cesspool of misinformation right now. Especially any of the neighborhood groups you may be in. Please, don’t share or spread, unverified, non-news related info.”
In California, hot, dry weather conditionsappeared to be easing the spread of multiple blazes that have blitzed historic amounts of land. However the state is still tackling huge and dangerous conflagrations on multiple fronts. In the north, a wildfire that destroyed a foothill hamlet has become the state’s deadliest blaze of the year. Ten people were confirmed to have died and the toll could climb as 16 people remain missing.
The North Complex fire that exploded in wind-driven flames earlier in the week was advancing more slowly on Friday after the winds eased and smoke from the blaze shaded the area and lowered the temperature, allowing firefighters to make progress, authorities said.
Speaking from the site of the North Complex fire in Oroville, California governor Gavin Newsom said the state was seeing the reality of climate change play out in real time, and that the state’s clean energy goals and other preventive efforts were “inadequate”.
“What we’re experiencing right here is coming to communities all across the United States of America, unless we can act on climate change,” Newsom warned.
The governor also signed a bill into law that will give some people who served as firefighters while incarcerated a chance to expunge their record, allowing them to get paid jobs as firefighters upon release. California relies heavily on prison labor for its firefighting efforts. Many incarcerated firefighters earn just pennies an hour for the dangerous work of fighting wildfires, and the system has attracted intense criticism, especially as many former inmates have no realistic path into a career.
In Washington state, 600,000 acres have burned. Governor Jay Inslee, who ran for the Democratic presidential nomination on a ticket that put the climate crisis as the No 1 issue facing America and the world, said the abnormally dry conditions and high temperatures fueled by climate change were making fires “so explosive”.
At a news conference Friday, he argued the fires in the northwest shouldn’t be called wildfires, but “climate fires”.
“This is not an act of God,” Inslee said. “This has happened because we have changed the climate of the state of Washington in dramatic ways.”
Some parts of Oregon have likely not seen such intense blazes in 300 to 400 years, Meg Krawchuk, a pyrogeographer at Oregon State University, told the Guardian.
“It’s very important to think in terms of learning from [the situation] right now – because we may be getting a glimpse of what our future may continue to be,” Krawchuk said.
Although untangling the weather conditions from climate change is complicated, a combination of global heating – which is driving drier, hotter conditions and more frequent, extreme droughts – and a buildup of dried and dead vegetation that fuel fires are overall increasing the risk of bigger, more extreme fires.
Across the west, “there have always been fires”, said Stephen Pyne, a fire historian and professor emeritus at Arizona State University. But the extreme fires are becoming more frequent.
A record 3m acres have burned across California this year, with so many blazes simultaneously whipping through dry wilderness that many have converged into massive “complexes”, the scope of which the state has never seen.
Josiah Williams, 16, was among the first of 10 known victims killed so far by the North Complex fire, in Berry Creek.
“He’s a kind, sweet boy who has the best personality,” his aunt, Bobbie Zedaker, had told the Guardian, while the family were waiting for news. His mother later confirmed his death on Facebook.
Meanwhile Paradise, the town devastated by the Camp fire in 2018, faced haunting memories as the nearby North Complex fire raged.
On Friday smoke was draped over the town like fog. Ash from the nearby fires piled up on sidewalks and gutters and blew through the air. The fire has killed 10 people in Berry Creek, a nearby foothill hamlet, and largely leveled the town, a devastation familiar to the residents of Paradise, where 85 people died in the Camp fire.
At Treasures from Paradise, an antique shop that was destroyed in the fire and reopened in 2019, owners Barbara and Rick Manson had planned to keep the store closed Friday to focus on cleaning up the ash from outside and removing the smell of smoke indoors. But as they worked, customers streamed in, still looking for a slice of normalcy amid another disaster, and the Mansons couldn’t turn them away.
“We’re gonna be here as long as the place doesn’t burn down around us,” Barbara said.
Paradise isn’t considered at risk at this point, though earlier in the week, officials issued an evacuation warning for parts of Paradise. The couple is optimistic, and think Paradise will be safe, but still are preparing for any possibility. Rick has been watering the grass and around the building to protect it.
“A lot of people are hurting,” Barbara said. “I think people thought the fires were behind us.”